Types of Esophageal Cancer
There are two main types of esophageal cancer:
- Adenocarcinoma - the most common esophageal cancer in the US and primarily affects older, white men. The incidence of adenocarcinoma has increased markedly over the past two decades for unknown reasons. Adenocarcinoma begins in the glandular cells (cells that produce and release fluids such as mucous), usually in the lower part of the esophagus near the stomach.
- Squamous cell carcinoma - the most common type of esophageal cancer worldwide. This type of esophageal cancer starts in squamous cells (thin, flat cells that line the esophagus) and is found most often in the upper and middle parts of the esophagus.
Diagnosis and Treatment Options
Tests that are most often used to examine the esophagus and find signs of cancer are barium swallow (upper GI series) and esophagoscopy that may include biopsy.
Normal barium swallow
For more information on these tests, visit our common diagnostic tests page.
Stages of Esophageal Cancer
Once you have been diagnosed with cancer, imaging studies such as a chest and abdominal computed tomography (CT) scan, a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, and endoscopic ultrasound will be performed to determine the extent, or stage, of the tumor.
The stage of your esophageal cancer will help you understand how advanced the disease is, whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body, and what treatments to consider.
A higher stage tumor means that the cancer is more advanced and has a worse outcome (prognosis).
Surgery, performed by a cardiothoracic surgeon, is the most common treatment for esophageal cancer.
If you and your cardiothoracic surgeon decide to move forward with surgery, you likely would undergo an esophagectomy, which is an operation to remove the cancer along with most of the esophagus. After the cancerous part of your esophagus is removed, your surgeon will connect the remaining part of the esophagus to your stomach. If the stomach cannot be used due to involvement by the cancer or previous stomach surgery, the large or small intestine may be used to replace the esophagus.
As with any surgery or operation, there are risks involved. Possible complications depend on the extent of the surgery and your overall health. Serious complications can include bleeding, infections, pneumonia, hoarseness, or a leak or scarring at the connection between the esophagus and the stomach.
You can expect to go home from the hospital 5-7 days after surgery. While in the hospital, it is important that you work on deep breathing, coughing, and walking to keep your lungs functioning and to prevent blood clots.
Keeping yourself in good health and staying active will reduce your chance of complications and make recovery after surgery much easier. It also is essential to maintain good nutrition before surgery. Many patients with esophageal cancer find it hard to eat because they have trouble swallowing. Some patients temporarily may require a feeding tube through their nose (Dobhoff tube) or small bowel (jejunostomy tube).
If you require preoperative chemotherapy and radiation, restaging studies including a chest and abdominal CT scan will be done to confirm that the cancer has not spread elsewhere in the body. You also will need to see your cardiothoracic surgeon again before the surgery to make sure that you have recovered adequately from your chemoradiation before proceeding with surgery.
Reviewed by: Robbin G. Cohen, MD, with assistance from John Hallsten and Travis Schwartz
Previously reviewed by: Jules Lin, MD and Rishindra Reddy, MD