Reviewed by Bronwyn Long, DNP, MBA, RN

Esophageal cancer forms in the tissues that line the esophagus, or the long, hollow tube that connects the mouth and stomach. Food and drink pass through the esophagus to be digested. There are two types of esophageal cancer, adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Both types begin in the inner lining of the esophagus. Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of esophageal cancer in the United States. It is often found in the lower part of the esophagus, near the stomach. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of esophageal cancer around the world. It is often found in the upper part of the esophagus.
 

Who is at risk for developing esophageal cancer?

Diagram of esophagus

A risk factor is something that increases your chances of developing cancer.  You have an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer if you are age 65 or older and:

  • Drink alcohol – People who drink more than 3 alcoholic drinks daily are at higher risk for developing esophageal cancer than people who do not drink alcohol.
  • Smoke – Smoking is a risk factor for developing esophageal cancer.  People who are heavy drinkers and smoke are at higher risk than heavy drinkers who do not smoke.
  • Chew tobacco - Chewing tobacco can increase the risk of esophageal cancer.
  • Are male – In the United States, men are more than 3 times more likely than women to develop esophageal cancer.
  • Experience acid reflux – The abnormal backward flow of stomach acid into the esophagus is called acid reflux.  This is called gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD.
  • Have Barrett’s esophagus – Chronic acid reflux can damage the esophagus.  Over time this can cause changes in the cells at the base of the esophagus.  Barrett’s esophagus is considered a precancerous condition.
  • Do not eat a lot of fruits and vegetables – Research indicates that a diet low in fruits and vegetables may increase the risk of esophageal cancer.
  • Are obese – Obesity increases the risk of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus.
  • Had radiation therapy to the chest or upper abdomen.

Having multiple risk factors further increases your risk of developing esophageal cancer.  For example, a person who smokes, drinks, has a history of acid reflux and Barrett’s esophagus, has an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer over a person with individual risk factors.

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