Understanding Oesophageal Cancer and
How To Manage It

Your guide to understanding all aspects of oesophageal cancer

“While there’s life, there’s hope.”


Early detection and diagnosis always increase your chances of receiving successful treatment and beating all forms of cancer – including oesophageal cancer. Detecting oesophageal cancer early will significantly boost your odds of survival. 

You can read the section that details the various types of cancer before embarking on the journey to understand oesophageal cancer better. Read more

Let’s understand
the anatomy first

The oesophagus is the hollow, muscular tube that helps transport food and liquid from the throat to the stomach. The wall of the oesophagus is made up of several layers of tissue, including membranes and muscle.

What is oesophageal cancer?

Oesophageal cancer often begins with cells in the glandular tissues or the mucosa, which line the oesophagus. These cells grow in an abnormal or uncontrolled manner and form a malignant tumour. Cancer may sometimes spread or metastasize through the oesophageal tissue to other parts of the body.

Types of Oesophageal Cancer

There are two main types of oesophageal cancer and they are named after the type of cells which become cancerous

Squamous cell cancer

The thin, flat cells of the mucosa may become cancerous and lead to a squamous cell cervical cancer. This is the most common type of oesophageal cancer.


The glandular cells of the oesophagus may also become cancerous and lead to an adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus.

There are other rarer types of oesophageal cancer as well:

Small cell cancer

This is a rare form of oesophageal cancer and resembles small cell carcinoma of the lung and other organs.

Poorly differentiated
neuroendocrine cancer

Neuroendocrine carcinomas of the oesophagus are very rare with a reported incidence of less than 1% of all oesophageal cancers.

Soft tissue sarcomas
(such as gastro-intestinal
stromal tumours)

Leiomyosarcoma is a rare type of soft tissue sarcoma that develops in smooth muscle of the oesophagus. Adenoid cystic carcinoma is a slow-growing, or indolent, form of oesophageal cancer.

What causes oesophageal cancer?

Clinical practitioners and researchers do not know the exact causes of oesophageal cancer. There are certain risk factors (detailed below) that can increase your chance of developing it; however, having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will definitely get oesophageal cancer. On the other hand, having no risk factors also does not mean you will not get the disease. Oesophageal cancer is likely to be caused by a combination of these factors, rather than just one.

What are the Risk Factors?

Although clinicians do not fully understand what causes oesophageal cancer, here are some factors that put people at higher risk. Being associated with a risk factor does not necessarily mean that you will develop oesophageal cancer

A family history of oesophageal cancer

Excessive smoking or use of chewing tobacco

Being malnourished (lacking essential nutrients or calories)

High alcohol consumption


Certain pre-existing medical conditions can also increase your risk, including:

  • Barrett oesophagus (a condition in which the cells lining the lower part of the oesophagus are abnormal)
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Tylosis (focal thickening of the hands and feet)
  • Achalasia (a rare disorder that makes it difficult for food and liquid to pass through the oesophagus)
  • Being diagnosed with HPV (human papillomavirus)

What Can be Done to
Lower Your Risk of Getting
Oesophageal Cancer?

Making some key lifestyle changes are known to help reduce your risk of oesophageal cancer. Evidence suggests that taking appropriate steps to avoid risk factors like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption may reduce the risk of oesophageal cancer. Maintaining a healthy weight and regular exercise may also reduce the probability of getting oesophageal cancer.

What are the Symptoms?

Some common symptoms of oesophageal cancer include

Difficulty or pain while swallowing

Discomfort or difficulty while eating

Episodes of choking on food

Frequent regurgitation
 (food and fluids come back up after “catching” in the throat)

Unexplainable weight loss

Extreme fatigue

Vomiting up blood

New or worsening heartburn or acid reflux

Bloody or black-coloured stools

Hoarseness, or a chronic cough

Screening for oesophageal cancer

Oesophageal cancer may occur in both men and women, but is more common in older men. Unfortunately, no standard or routine screening tests are performed for oesophageal cancer. However, if you experience any of the symptoms listed above or any other inexplicable change, make an appointment with your doctor for prompt evaluation. If you or your loved one have a family history of oesophageal cancer, have an open discussion with your doctor about undergoing genetic testing or routine check-ups.

Diagnostic tests for oesophageal cancer

If you experience any of the symptoms listed above or your doctor detects any abnormalities, he or she may recommend follow-up diagnostic tests to confirm if cancer is present. Refer to this section for more information about diagnostic tests for oesophageal cancer. Read more

Staging oesophageal cancer

If your doctor confirms that you have oesophageal cancer, further tests may be done to study the cancer cells and determine

If the disease has spread beyond the oesophagus (i.e. determine the stage of cancer)

How quickly the
cancer will grow

How likely it is to spread through the body

What sort of treatments might work

The likelihood of the cancer to recur (come back)

The stage of your cancer is a key aspect in determining your treatment. Refer to this section to understand your cancer diagnosis and for more information about how oesophageal cancer is staged. Read more

Treatments for
oesophageal cancer
The decision about the best course of treatment is based on these test results type, stage, grade and size of your tumour. Treatments like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are some of the options used for oesophageal cancer. Refer to this section to understand the types of cancer treatments for oesophageal cancer and possible side effects. Read more
Your cancer journey
Everyone deals with an oesophageal cancer diagnosis and treatment in a different way. Refer to this section, to understand various aspects of your cancer journey and the road to recovery. Read more
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