Esophageal cancer types

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on May 19, 2022.

Esophageal cancer develops in the inner lining of the esophagus. Because the esophagus may be lined by one of two types of cells—gland cells or squamous cells—doctors use the cell type to diagnose the disease, usually either as an adenocarcinoma or as a squamous cell carcinoma. The treatment approach depends on the type and stage of cancer the patient may be experiencing.

Esophageal adenocarcinomas

Adenocarcinomas of the esophagus are 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.

Researchers say esophageal adenocarcinoma is among the fastest-growing cancers in the United States. 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 and are among the reasons cited for the growing number of cases.

Squamous cell esophageal cancer

Squamous cell carcinomas develop in the thin, flat cells that make up the outermost layer of skin, most commonly in the upper and middle areas of the esophagus. Heavy alcohol and tobacco use are linked to an increased risk for squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus.

Rare esophageal cancer types

Less common types of esophageal cancer include:

Small cell carcinoma: These types of esophageal cancers form in neuroendocrine cells.

Sarcoma: Soft tissue sarcomas can grow in tissues anywhere in the body. In rare instances, gastrointestinal stromal tumors (a type of sarcoma) may be detected in the esophagus.

Melanoma: A cancerous tumor that forms in the melanin cells of the esophageal mucosa is known as esophageal melanoma.

Next topic: What are the stages of esophageal cancer?

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