Esophageal Cancer: The Basics

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: March 30, 2023

The esophagus is a tube made out of muscle that connects your mouth to your stomach. Esophageal cancer is caused by esophageal cells growing out of control. As the number of cells grows, they form into a tumor.

Esophageal cancer that has spread from the esophagus to another part of the body is called metastatic cancer.


These include:

  • Smoking and drinking alcohol, especially doing both.
  • Health issues like reflux (heartburn) and Barrett’s esophagus.
  • Weighing more than you should.
  • Eating a lot of pickled, dried, or smoked foods.
  • Certain genetic syndromes like Tylosis, Zollinger-Ellison syndrome, Howel Evans’ syndrome, Bloom syndrome, and Fanconi anemia.

Signs of Esophageal Cancer

Signs can be:

  • Trouble with swallowing which can make you lose weight.
  • Feeling like food is getting stuck in your chest.
  • Pain when swallowing.

Diagnosis of Esophageal Cancer

When your healthcare provider thinks you may have esophageal cancer, they will do a full exam of your body and ask you questions about your health history. They also may order tests:

These tests are important, but a biopsy is the only way to know for sure if you have cancer. A biopsy:

  • Looks at a piece of the esophagus for cancer cells.
  • Is used to find out the cancer type, how normal it is [grade], and if it has spread.
  • May look at samples from lymph nodes to check for cancer.

A pathology report sums up these results and is sent to your healthcare provider, often 5-10 days after the biopsy. This report is an important part of planning your treatment. You can ask for a copy of your report for your records.

Staging Esophageal Cancer

To guide treatment, esophageal cancer is "staged." This stage is based on

  • Size and location of the tumor.
  • Whether cancer cells are in the lymph nodes.
  • Whether cancer cells are in other parts of the body.

Stages range from stage I (smallest, most confined tumors) to stage IV (tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, also called metastatic cancer). The stage and type of esophageal cancer will guide your treatment plan.


Often, these treatments are used:

  • Surgery can be used in some cases.
  • Radiation is the use of high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy, medications used to kill cancer cells, can be used to treat cancer that may have spread.
  • Targeted therapy, medications that work specifically against a certain target, can be used to treat certain types of esophageal cancer.
  • These treatments may be used alone or in combination.

This article is a basic guide to esophageal cancer. You can learn more about your type of esophageal cancer and treatment by using the links below.

Esophageal Cancer: Staging and Treatment

Surgical Procedures: Surgery and Staging for Esophageal Cancer

Surgical Procedures: Esophagectomy

American Cancer Society. Esophagus Cancer.

NCCN Guidelines, Esophageal and Esophagogastric Junction Cancers, Version 2.2023. March 10, 2023. (log in required).

Burt, B. M., Groth, S. S., Sada, Y. H., Farjah, F., Cornwell, L., Sugarbaker, D. J., & Massarweh, N. N. (2017). Utility of Adjuvant Chemotherapy After Neoadjuvant Chemoradiation and Esophagectomy for Esophageal Cancer. Annals of Surgery.

D’Journo, X. B., & Thomas, P. A. (2014). Current management of esophageal cancer. Journal of Thoracic Disease, 6(2), S253-S264.

Haefner, M. F., Lang, K., Krug, D., Koerber, S. A., Uhlmann, L., Kieser, M., ... & Sterzing, F. (2015). Prognostic factors, patterns of recurrence, and toxicity for patients with esophageal cancer undergoing definitive radiotherapy or chemo-radiotherapy. Journal of Radiation Research, 56(4), 742-749.

Keith, B. (2016). Esophageal Cancer. Mosby's Oncology Nursing Advisor: A Comprehensive Guide to Clinical Practice, 58.

Kelly, R. J., Ajani, J. A., Kuzdzal, J., Zander, T., Van Cutsem, E., Piessen, G., ... & Moehler, M. (2021). Adjuvant Nivolumab in Resected Esophageal or Gastroesophageal Junction Cancer. New England Journal of Medicine, 384(13), 1191-1203.

Purim, O., Beny, A., Inbar, M., Shulman, K., Brenner, B., Dudnik, E., ... & Sarid, D. (2018). Biomarker-driven therapy in metastatic gastric and esophageal cancer: Real-life clinical experience. Targeted oncology, 1-10.

Saltzman, J. R., Gibson, M. K., & Goldberg, R. M. (2018). Clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and staging of esophageal cancer. UpToDate, Waltham, MA.

Shaheen, N. J., Falk, G. W., Iyer, P. G., & Gerson, L. B. (2016). ACG clinical guideline: diagnosis and management of Barrett’s esophagus. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 111(1), 30-50.

Takeuchi, M., Suda, K., Hamamoto, Y., Kato, M., Mayanagi, S., Yoshida, K., ... & Takeuchi, H. (2018). Technical feasibility and oncologic safety of diagnostic endoscopic resection for superficial esophageal cancer. Gastrointestinal endoscopy, 88(3), 456-465.

Talukdar, F. R., di Pietro, M., Secrier, M., Moehler, M., Goepfert, K., Lima, S. S. C., ... & Herceg, Z. (2018). Molecular landscape of esophageal cancer: implications for early detection and personalized therapy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1434(1), 342-359.

Watanabe, M., Otake, R., Kozuki, R., Toihata, T., Takahashi, K., Okamura, A., & Imamura, Y. (2020). Recent progress in multidisciplinary treatment for patients with esophageal cancer. Surgery today, 50(1), 12-20.

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