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Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer accounts for only 1 percent of all cancer cases in the United States, but the number of cases has been increasing. Obesity may be one reason for the increase. The risk of dying from esophageal cancer increases approximately 50 percent in obese men. African-Americans are also twice as likely as whites to have cancer of the esophagus.

Oncology Services at Beaumont are dedicated to offering counseling, diagnosis and exceptional care to patients with esophageal cancer and their families. In fact, Corewell Health William Beaumont University Hospital, has been named a Blue Distinction Center SM for esophageal cancer as part of a national program sponsored by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.

What is esophageal cancer?

Esophageal cancer is cancer that develops in the esophagus, the muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach. The esophagus, located just behind the trachea, is about 10 to 13 inches in length and allows food to enter the stomach for digestion. The wall of the esophagus is made up of several layers and cancers generally start from the inner layer and grow out.

The American Cancer Society estimates 16,940 diagnosed and 15,690 deaths in 2017, and 15,590 deaths are expected.

Other facts about esophageal cancer include the following:

  • Esophageal cancer is 50 percent more likely to develop among men than among women.
  • Esophageal cancer is 50 percent more likely to develop among African Americans than among Caucasians.
  • Some countries such as Iran, northern China, India, and southern Africa have rates that are 10 to 100 times greater than that in the United States.

What causes esophageal cancer?

No one knows exactly what causes esophageal cancer. At the top of the esophagus is a muscle, called the sphincter, that releases to let food or liquid go through. The lower part of the esophagus is connected to the stomach. Another muscle is located at this connection that opens to allow the food to enter the stomach. This muscle also works to keep food and juices from the stomach from backing into the esophagus. When these juices do back up, reflux, commonly known as heartburn, occurs.

Long-term reflux can change the cells in the lower end of the esophagus. This condition is known as Barrett's esophagus. If these cells are not treated, they are at much higher risk of developing into cancer cells.

What are the different types of esophageal cancer?

There are two main types of esophageal cancer.

The most common type of esophageal cancer, known as adenocarcinoma, develops in the glandular tissue in the lower part of the esophagus, near the opening of the stomach. It occurs in just over 50 percent of cases.

Squamous cell carcinoma grows in the cells that form the top layer of the lining of the esophagus, known as squamous cells. This type of cancer can grow anywhere along the esophagus.

Treatment for both types of esophageal cancer is similar.