Oesophageal cancer (also called cancer of the oesophagus) is a malignant tumour that grows in the lining of the oesophagus. The oesophagus (the gullet) is the tube that carries food from the mouth down into the stomach using a series of muscular movements. Oesophageal cancer is far more common in men than women, and usually affects people older than 50.
Two types of cancer, squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma, make up 90 per cent of all oesophageal cancers. Oesophageal cancer can occur in any section of the oesophagus. Most cancers in the top part of the oesophagus are squamous cell cancers. They are called this because the cells lining the top part of the oesophagus are squamous cells. Squamous means scaly.
Most cancers at the end of the oesophagus that joins the stomach are adenocarcinomas. Adenocarcinomas are often found in people who have a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus. In Barrett’s oesophagus, long term gastro-oesophageal reflux damages the normal squamous cells that line the oesophagus by repeatedly bathing them in acidic stomach contents. Over time the squamous cells are replaced by cells more like the ones in the stomach and small intestine. It is in these new cells, the so-called Barrett’s metaplasia, that adenocarcinomas can develop. Because some people with Barrett’s oesophagus will go on to develop cancer of the oesophagus, regular screening may be required to detect any pre-cancerous cells that may develop.
Oesophageal cancer is relatively uncommon in Australia but in some parts of Asia it is very common. In many Western countries adenocarcinoma is becoming much more common.
What causes this type of cancer is not fully understood, but it is thought that there are a number of risk factors and conditions that, if present for any length of time, may lead to oesophageal cancer. These include the following.
You should always check with your doctor if you have any difficulty swallowing or have constant episodes of reflux, or if you develop any of the symptoms that may indicate oesophageal cancer, such as:
Early detection of this cancer is extremely important as it does improve the chance of successful treatment. Unfortunately, this type of cancer, even if successfully treated, can often recur even after surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment.
Last Reviewed: 08 July 2009