What is oesophageal cancer?

The oesophagus (gullet) is part of the digestive system, which is sometimes called the gastro-intestinal tract (GI tract). The oesophagus is a muscular tube. It connects your mouth to your stomach.

In the UK, around 9000 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer each year.

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Types of oesophageal cancer

Knowing the type of oesophageal cancer you have helps your cancer doctor plan your treatment.

There are two main types of oesophageal cancer:

  • squamous cell carcinoma – this develops in the thin, flat cells of the mucosa, which lines the oesophagus
  • adenocarcinoma – this develops from glandular cells and is often linked with Barrett’s oesophagus.

Cancer can develop anywhere in the oesophagus. Cancers in the upper or middle oesophagus are usually squamous cell cancer. Cancers in the lower oesophagus are usually adenocarcinomas. This includes cancers that develop in the area where the oesophagus joins the stomach.

Most oesophageal cancers are either squamous cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma. But there are other, rarer types of oesophageal cancer. These include:

The tests and treatments for these rarer types of oesophageal cancer are different from the ones we describe in this information. Our cancer information specialists can give you more information. You can call them for free on 0808 808 00 00.

Symptoms of oesophageal cancer

The most common symptom of oesophageal cancer is difficulty swallowing. You may feel as though food is sticking in your throat or chest. This symptom can be caused by other conditions other than cancer. But it is important to get it checked by your GP. They can arrange tests or refer you to a specialist if necessary.

If you are worried about oesophageal cancer we have more information about the signs and symptoms.

Causes of oesophageal cancer

We do not know exactly what causes oesophageal cancer. But certain things called risk factors can increase the chance of developing it.

Some of the main risk factors linked to oesophageal cancer include:

  • long-term acid reflux
  • obesity
  • gender
  • age.

Having a risk factor does not mean you will get oesophageal cancer. And if you do not have any risk factors, you may still get oesophageal cancer.

We have more information about the causes and risk factors of oesophageal cancer.

Diagnosis of oesophageal cancer

You usually start by seeing your GP. They will ask about your symptoms and examine you. You may have blood tests to check your general health. If your GP is not sure what the problem is, or thinks you may have cancer, they will refer you to hospital for a test called an endoscopy. If your GP thinks you may have cancer, you should be seen at the hospital within 2 weeks.

Tests for oesophageal cancer

The main tests to diagnose oesophageal cancer is an endoscopy. This is a test that looks at the lining of your oesophagus, stomach and duodenum (the first part of the small bowel). Endoscopies can also be used to give treatment.

At the hospital

If the biopsy results from your endoscopy show there are cancer cells, you will see a specialist doctor. This is usually a surgeon who specialises in oesophageal and gastro-intestinal cancers. Or you may see a gastroenterologist who specialises in treating oesophageal, stomach and digestive problems. You may also see a specialist nurse. Your specialist doctor or nurse will arrange more tests. These are to find out:

These tests may include:

  • Blood tests

    You may have a blood test to check your general health.

  • Chest x-ray

    You may have a chest x-ray to check your lungs and heart.

  • CT scan

    A CT scan takes a series of x-rays which build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body.

  • PET-CT scan

    A PET-CT scan gives more detailed information about the part of the body being scanned.

  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS)

    An EUS is an endoscopy using an ultra sound probe. It can make more detailed pictures of the wall of the oesophagus and surrounding area.

  • Laparoscopy

    A laparoscopy is a small operation used to look at organs inside your tummy (abdomen). The surgeon uses a thin tube with a camera on the end, called a laparoscope. They may also take biopsies.

  • Barium swallow

    Some people may have a test called a barium swallow. For this test you drink a liquid called barium, which helps to show the oesophagus more clearly on an x-ray. You usually only have this test if you have not had an endoscopy.

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time, we have more information that can help.

Staging and grading of oesophageal cancer

The results of your tests help your doctors find out more about the position of the cancer and whether it has spread. This is called staging.

A doctor decides the grade of the cancer by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. This gives an idea of how quickly the cancer might grow or spread.

Knowing the stage and grade helps your doctors plan the best treatment for you.

Treatment for oesophageal cancer

A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about things to consider when making treatment decisions.

You might have treatment to cure the cancer. If a cure is not possible, the aim of treatment is to control the cancer and help with the symptoms.

Your treatment for oesophageal cancer depends on:

You can read about when different treatments are given in our treatment overview. These treatments may include:

  • Surgery

    Surgery can be used to remove the cancer or relieve symptoms.

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. It can be given before and after surgery. It can be given on its own, with radiotherapy (chemoradiation) or with targeted therapy. It may also be used for people who cannot have surgery.

  • Radiotherapy

    Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to treat cancer. It may be given in combination with chemotherapy (chemoradiation). If the cancer is more advanced, you may have radiotherapy on its own to shrink the tumour and help control symptoms.

  • Chemoradiation

    Chemoradiation is when you have chemotherapy and radiotherapy together. Chemotherapy can make the cancer cells more sensitive to radiotherapy treatment.

  • Targeted therapy

    Targeted therapy drugs work by targeting something in or around the cancer cell that is helping it grow and survive. Sometimes a targeted therapy drug called trastuzumab is given with chemotherapy to treat advanced oesophageal cancer.

  • Immunotherapy

    Currently immunotherapy is not commonly used to treat oesophageal cancer. Nivolumab or pembrolizumab are sometimes used. You may be offered immunotherapy as part of a clinical trial.

The treatments can be used alone or in combination with each other. Your cancer doctor and specialist nurse will explain the treatments they think are best for you. They can help you make decisions about your treatment.

You may also have treatments as part of a clinical trial.

Treating advanced oesophageal cancer

Cancer that started in the oesophagus and has spread to other parts of the body is called advanced cancer. The cancer may be advanced when it is first diagnosed. Or it may have come back after treatment – this is called a recurrent cancer.

If you have advanced oesophageal cancer, you may be offered treatment such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy or targeted therapies. These treatments will not cure the cancer, but they may be able to shrink it. This may control it for a time and improve symptoms, such as difficulty swallowing.

After oesophageal cancer treatment

After your treatment has finished, you will have regular follow-up appointments. Depending on what treatment you had, you may have an endoscopy or a scan as part of your follow-up care. You will usually talk with someone from your healthcare team at the appointment. This may be your surgeon, cancer doctor, specialist nurse or another health professional.

Eating after treatment for oesophageal cancer

It can take a few months to recover from treatment for oesophageal cancer. And it may take up to a year to adjust to the changes in your digestive system.

We have more information and advice about eating after treatment for oesophageal cancer and about dumping syndrome.

Well-being and recovery

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.

Making small changes such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and wellbeing and help your body recover.

Reviewed: 30 September 2019
Reviewed: 30/09/2019
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Next review: 30 September 2022
Next review: 30/09/2022