Introduction 

Cancer of the oesophagus, also known as oesophageal cancer, is an uncommon but serious type of cancer that affects the oesophagus (gullet).

The oesophagus is the medical name for the gullet, which is part of the digestive system. The oesophagus is the long tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach. The top part of the oesophagus lies behind the windpipe (trachea). The bottom part runs down through the chest between the spine and the heart.

Symptoms of oesophageal cancer include:

  • difficulties swallowing (dysphagia)
  • weight loss
  • throat pain
  • persistent cough

See your GP if you have any of these symptoms. They don’t necessarily mean that you have oesophageal cancer, but they will need to be investigated.

Your GP will take a detailed look at your medical history before carrying out a physical examination to check for any signs of abnormalities, such as a lump in your abdomen that may indicate a tumour.

If your GP still suspects oesophageal cancer you will be referred for further tests. Read more information about how oesophageal cancer is diagnosed.

Types of oesophageal cancer

There are two main types of oesophageal cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma forms in the upper part of the oesophagus. It occurs when cells on the inside lining of the oesophagus multiply abnormally.
  • Adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus forms in the lower part of the oesophagus. It occurs when cells inside the mucous glands that line the oesophagus multiply abnormally. The mucous glands produce a slimy substance to help food slide down the oesophagus more easily.

How common is oesophageal cancer?

Oesophageal cancer is uncommon, but it is not rare. It is the ninth most common type of cancer in the UK, with more than 8,500 new cases diagnosed each year.

Oesophageal cancer most commonly affects people over the age of 60, with the average age at diagnosis being 72. The condition is more common in men than in women.

Smoking and drinking alcohol are two of the biggest risk factors for oesophageal cancer, particularly if both activities are combined. People who drink heavily but do not smoke are four times more likely to develop oesophageal cancer than non-drinkers, and people who smoke and do not drink alcohol are twice as likely to develop oesophageal cancer.

However, people who smoke and drink heavily (more than 30 units a week) are eight times more likely to develop oesophageal cancer than those who do not smoke or drink.

Read more information about the causes of oesophageal cancer and preventing oesophageal cancer.

Treating oesophageal cancer

Oesophageal cancer does not usually cause any noticeable symptoms until the cancer has spread beyond the oesophagus and into nearby tissue. For this reason it can be more difficult to cure compared with other types of cancer.

On average, 40% of people with oesophageal cancer will live for one year after the diagnosis, and 13% will live for five years after the diagnosis. The outlook can improve greatly if the cancer is diagnosed and treated at an early stage, or where a cure is possible.

Attempting to cure oesophageal cancer involves having a course of chemotherapy (and radiotherapy as well in some cases) followed by surgery to remove the cancerous section of the oesophagus.

If a cure is not achievable, it is usually still possible to relieve symptoms and slow the spread of the cancer using a combination of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery.

Read more information about how oesophageal cancer is treated.

Help and support

A diagnosis of cancer is a tough challenge for most people. There are a number of ways you can find support to help you cope, although not all of them work for everybody.

Read about living with oesophageal cancer for more information on getting help with:

  • recovery and follow-up
  • your relationships with others
  • talking to other people who have oesophageal cancer
  • money and financial support
  • free prescriptions
  • palliative care

If you are caring for someone with cancer, you can find out more about looking after yourself on Carers Direct, including advice on how to get time off.




Page last reviewed: 30/06/2014

Next review due: 30/06/2016