Esophageal cancer


This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on April 29, 2022.

Esophageal cancer is a complex disease that develops when cancer forms in the esophagus, which is the hollow, muscular tube connecting the throat to the stomach. This type of cancer is rare, accounting for only about 1 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the United States. But several factors increase the risk of developing this type of cancer, including alcohol and tobacco use, obesity and persistent acid reflux. The most common symptom of esophageal cancer is trouble swallowing, or dysphagia, which occurs when the cancer grows and the opening to the esophagus gets smaller.

No esophageal cancer patient is the same. Get personalized treatment.

At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), we target esophageal tumors with advanced treatments and technology. And our supportive care clinicians are also available to help you manage the side effects of treatment, so you are better able to maintain your strength, stamina and quality of life throughout treatment.

Explore esophageal cancer treatment options at CTCA in Atlanta, Chicago and Phoenix.

Esophageal cancer symptoms

In its early stages, esophageal cancer typically doesn't cause signs or symptoms. Once the disease has advanced, the most common symptom is often trouble swallowing, or dysphagia, caused when the opening to the esophagus contracts and becomes smaller. This symptom generally worsens over time.

Other symptoms of esophageal cancer include:


Diagnosing esophageal cancer

A diagnosis of esophageal cancer is usually determined after several tests have been performed. People with conditions that increase their risk of developing esophageal cancer, such as Barrett's esophagus, may be advised to have regular endoscopic exams to look for changes in tissue.

Diagnostic tests may include:


Who gets esophageal cancer?

The risk for developing esophageal cancer increases with age, and men are three to four times more likely than women to be diagnosed with the disease. People who are obese or who drink or smoke excessively, especially in combination, are also more likely to develop esophageal cancer.

People with certain conditions are also at higher risk. These conditions include:

  • GERD
  • Barrett's esophagus
  • Achalasia
  • Tylosis
  • Esophageal webs

Esophageal cancer is rare, accounting for 1 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the United States. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, an estimated 20,640 Americans will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2022. The disease accounts for more than 2 percent (more than 16,000) of cancer deaths each year in the United States.

What causes esophageal cancer?

Researchers believe esophageal cancer may develop from damaged DNA in the cells that line the esophagus. The DNA damage is frequently caused by long-term irritants, such as chronic tobacco or alcohol use.

Other factors that may lead to esophageal cancer include:

  • Obesity
  • Conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), Barrett's esophagus and achalasia
  • A diet low in fruits, vegetables and certain vitamins and minerals

Types of esophageal cancer

Esophageal cancers are classified depending on the type of cell in which they form. The two primary types of esophageal cancer are:

Adenocarcinomas of the esophagus: This is the most common type of esophageal cancer in the United States. Esophageal adenocarcinomas form in the mucus-forming gland cells of the esophageal lining, often in the lower part of the esophagus. Obesity and persistent acid reflux, which may or may not develop into Barrett's esophagus, are associated with a higher risk for adenocarcinomas of the esophagus.

Squamous cell carcinoma: This type of esophageal cancer forms in squamous cells most often found in the upper part of the esophagus, in the upper chest and the neck. According to the American Cancer Society, squamous cell carcinoma once was the most common type of esophageal cancer, but now accounts for less than half of all new cases.

CTCA Cancer Care

Esophageal cancer treatments

Depending on the type and stage of the disease, treatment for esophageal cancer may include therapies delivered either alone or in combination. These treatments may include:

  • Immunotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Gastrointestinal procedures
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery
  • Interventional radiology

It takes just one call to get expert cancer treatment at CTCA

At CTCA, our multidisciplinary team of board-certified medical oncologists, surgical oncologists, radiation oncologists and gastroenterologists treat all stages of esophageal cancer. We recognize that diseases of the GI tract, including esophageal cancer, require specialized treatment. That’s why each of our hospitals has developed a GI Cancer Center, focused specifically on cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, with the experience to help you navigate the complexities of choosing a treatment plan tailored to your needs.

Explore the cards below to learn more about our GI Cancer Centers at a hospital near you. If you need to travel for your care, our travel and accommodations team handles the details of your visit, including helping to coordinate travel and lodging arrangements.

GI Cancer Center

CTCA Atlanta

GI Cancer Center

GI Cancer Center

CTCA Chicago

GI Cancer Center

GI Cancer Center

CTCA Phoenix

GI Cancer Program

Supportive care

Treatments for esophageal cancer may cause a number of side effects that impact your ability to function normally, impairing your quality of life. Depending on the treatment and your individual experience, these may include pain, nausea, insomnia, malnutrition and/or neuropathy. We recognize that treating the cancer is only part of the battle. That’s why we also offer a range of supportive therapies to help you manage cancer-related side effects. For esophageal patients, these may include:

​Pain management

Pain management is a branch of medicine focused on reducing pain and improving quality of life through an integrative approach to care.

​Nutritional support

Every patient has the option of meeting with a registered dietitian.

​Oncology rehabilitation

​Oncology rehabilitation includes a wide range of therapies designed to help you build strength and endurance.