Esophageal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)

As a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a core part of our mission is to educate patients and the community about cancer. The following summary is trusted information from the NCI.

General Information About Esophageal Cancer

The esophagus is the hollow, muscular tube that moves food and liquid from the throat to the stomach. The wall of the esophagus is made up of several layers of tissue, including mucous membrane, muscle, and connective tissue. Esophageal cancer starts at the inside lining of the esophagus and spreads outward through the other layers as it grows.The stomach and esophagus are part of the upper digestive system.

The two most common forms of esophageal cancer are named for the type of cells that become malignant (cancerous):

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Cancer that forms in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells lining the esophagus. This cancer is most often found in the upper and middle part of the esophagus, but can occur anywhere along the esophagus. This is also called epidermoid carcinoma.
  • Adenocarcinoma: Cancer that begins in glandular (secretory) cells. Glandular cells in the lining of the esophagus produce and release fluids such as mucus. Adenocarcinomas usually form in the lower part of the esophagus, near the stomach.

Risk factors include the following:

  • Tobacco use.
  • Heavy alcohol use.
  • Barrett esophagus: A condition in which the cells lining the lower part of the esophagus have changed or been replaced with abnormal cells that could lead to cancer of the esophagus. Gastric reflux (the backing up of stomach contents into the lower section of the esophagus) may irritate the esophagus and, over time, cause Barrett esophagus.
  • Older age.
  • Being male.
  • Being African-American.

These and other symptoms may be caused by esophageal cancer or by other conditions. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • Painful or difficult swallowing.
  • Weight loss.
  • Pain behind the breastbone.
  • Hoarseness and cough.
  • Indigestion and heartburn.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (whether it affects part of the esophagus, involves the whole esophagus, or has spread to other places in the body).
  • The size of the tumor.
  • The patient's general health.

When esophageal cancer is found very early, there is a better chance of recovery. Esophageal cancer is often in an advanced stage when it is diagnosed. At later stages, esophageal cancer can be treated but rarely can be cured. Taking part in one of the clinical trials being done to improve treatment should be considered. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stages of Esophageal Cancer

The process used to find out if cancer cells have spread within the esophagus or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • Bronchoscopy: A procedure to look inside the trachea and large airways in the lung for abnormal areas. A bronchoscope is inserted through the nose or mouth into the trachea and lungs. A bronchoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Laryngoscopy: A procedure in which the doctor checks the larynx (voice box) with a mirror or with a laryngoscope. A laryngoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS): A procedure in which an endoscope is inserted into the body, usually through the mouth or rectum. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. A probe at the end of the endoscope is used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. This procedure is also called endosonography.
  • Thoracoscopy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs inside the chest to check for abnormal areas. An incision (cut) is made between two ribs and a thoracoscope is inserted into the chest. A thoracoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue or lymph node samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer. In some cases, this procedure may be used to remove part of the esophagus or lung.
  • Laparoscopy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs inside the abdomen to check for signs of disease. Small incisions (cuts) are made in the wall of the abdomen and a laparoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted into one of the incisions. Other instruments may be inserted through the same or other incisions to perform procedures such as removing organs or taking tissue samples to be checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radionuclide glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do. The use of PET for staging esophageal cancer is being studied in clinical trials.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

As esophageal cancer progresses from Stage 0 to Stage IV, the cancer cells grow through the layers of the esophagus wall and spread to lymph nodes and other organs.

In stage 0, abnormal cells are found in the innermost layer of tissue lining the esophagus. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ.

In stage I, cancer has formed and spread beyond the innermost layer of tissue to the next layer of tissue in the wall of the esophagus.

Stage II esophageal cancer is divided into stage IIA and stage IIB, depending on where the cancer has spread.

In stage III, cancer has spread to the outer wall of the esophagus and may have spread to tissues or lymph nodes near the esophagus.

Stage IV esophageal cancer is divided into stage IVA and stage IVB, depending on where the cancer has spread.

Recurrent Esophageal Cancer

Recurrent esophageal cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the esophagus or in other parts of the body.

Treatment Option Overview

Different types of treatment are available for patients with esophageal cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Many people with esophageal cancer find it hard to eat because they have trouble swallowing. The esophagus may be narrowed by the tumor or as a side effect of treatment. Some patients may receive nutrients directly into a vein. Others may need a feeding tube (a flexible plastic tube that is passed through the nose or mouth into the stomach) until they are able to eat on their own.

Surgery is the most common treatment for cancer of the esophagus. Part of the esophagus may be removed in an operation called an esophagectomy. Esophagectomy. A portion of the esophagus is removed and the stomach is pulled up and joined to the remaining esophagus.The doctor will connect the remaining healthy part of the esophagus to the stomach so the patient can still swallow. A plastic tube or part of the intestine may be used to make the connection. Lymph nodes near the esophagus may also be removed and viewed under a microscope to see if they contain cancer. If the esophagus is partly blocked by the tumor, an expandable metal stent (tube) may be placed inside the esophagus to help keep it open.Esophageal stent. A device (stent) is placed in the esophagus to keep it open to allow food and liquids to pass through into the stomach.

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

A plastic tube may be inserted into the esophagus to keep it open during radiation therapy. This is called intraluminal intubation and dilation.

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Laser therapy is a cancer treatment that uses a laser beam (a narrow beam of intense light) to kill cancer cells.

Electrocoagulation is the use of an electric current to kill cancer cells.

Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Treatment Options By Stage

A link to a list of current clinical trials is included for each treatment section. For some types or stages of cancer, there may not be any trials listed. Check with your doctor for clinical trials that are not listed here but may be right for you.

Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ)

Treatment of stage 0 is usually surgery.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage 0 esophageal cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage I Esophageal Cancer

Treatment of stage I esophageal cancer may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage I esophageal cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage II Esophageal Cancer

Treatment of stage II esophageal cancer may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage II esophageal cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage III Esophageal Cancer

Treatment of stage III esophageal cancer may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage III esophageal cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage IV Esophageal Cancer

Treatment of stage IV esophageal cancer may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage IV esophageal cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Treatment Options for Recurrent Esophageal Cancer

Treatment of recurrent esophageal cancer may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent esophageal cancer. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

To Learn More About Esophageal Cancer

For more information from the National Cancer Institute about esophageal cancer, see the following:

For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:



Cancer Care Services

Clinical Trials