Oesophageal cancer 


Cancer of the oesophagus

Oesophageal cancer affects the oesophagus (gullet) and is serious but rare. In this video, find out who's at risk, the questions to ask if you're diagnosed and the treatment options.

Media last reviewed: 28/11/2012

Next review due: 28/11/2014

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Information on living with cancer, including treatment, support and different personal experiences of cancer

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


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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

AlecMario said on 23 July 2013

I had chemo and radio therapy before my Ivor Lewis Adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus operation in October 2011 when I was 72. Since the operation I have had no problems at all and can eat everything including bread and red meat. The only limitation is because I have only 50% of my oesophagus and stomach I have to eat smaller portions and more frequently. I presume that my recovery is because of the combination of radio, chemo and op together with the skills and determination of the NHS staff involved in my treatment. I know that stats are necessary but perhaps somehow the dreadful stats quoted for this cancer could be put more optimistically or, if old, updated to reflect current results?

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survivingsecondariessince1990 said on 18 June 2013

Very interested to read your account of oesophageal cancer, as I have a friend just diagnosed. I wonder how you are doing right now with the addition of your breast cancer? it may be of interest for you to hear that I was diagnosed with colo-rectal cancer in 1986, which recurred the following year. In 1989 I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and in 1990 it was discovered my original tumour had spread to the bone and fractured my pelvis - and I am still hear to tell the tale! I hope things are going well for you.

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awjlove said on 07 July 2012

I am female and was 46 when diagnosed with Oesophageal cancer. I have never smoked and almost teetotal. I had the Ivor Lewis op in 2005 and thankfully live to tell the tale! My cancer was caught in it's very early stages as my father had died from it spreading to his stomach in 2002 and I felt things were not 100% in 2003. I had a gastroscopy and Barretts was found so it was decided to repeat the test 2 years later. In 2005 I asked for it to be repeated early as I felt things were not 'right'. They found changes in the cells and I was operated on immediately after further tests were conducted. It took me a good 3 years to adjust to eating and drinking in a different way - to avoid the 'dumping' syndrome which is a common side effect of the op. 6 months after having the op I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have a mastectomy - but that's a whole different story!!

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