Understanding Esophageal Cancer: What Is Esophageal Cancer?


To understand esophageal cancer, it’s first important to understand what cancer is: basically, the production of abnormal cells.

The body is programmed to routinely replenish cells in different organs. As normal cells age or get damaged, they die off. New cells take their place. This is what’s supposed to happen. Abnormal cell growth refers to a buildup of extra cells. This happens when:

  • New cells form even though the body doesn’t need them or
  • Old, damaged cells don’t die off.

These extra cells slowly accumulate to form a tissue mass, lump, or growth called a tumor. These abnormal cells can destroy normal body tissue and spread through the bloodstream and lymphatic system.

About Esophageal Cancer

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), there were about 16,910 new cases of esophageal cancer in the U.S. in 2016. Esophageal cancer is more common in men. Your esophagus is a tube that connects your mouth to your stomach.  It is made up of several layers of muscles and an innermost layer of mucosa. These muscles contract and push liquids and solid foods down into the stomach. When cancer occurs, it starts in inner layers and grows outward into deeper layers.

There are 2 types of cancer of the esophagus.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma— Cancer that starts in the squamous cells that form the inside layer of the esophagus lining.
  • Adenocarcinomas— Cancer that starts in the glandular cells. Adenocarcinomas are usually found in the lower esophagus often from a pre-cancerous condition called Barrett esophagus. Barrett esophagus occurs when the lining of the esophagus is damaged by stomach acid. 

Next: How is esophageal cancer diagnosed? 

Back to “Understanding Esophageal Cancer: An Introduction”