Esophageal cancer – definition and most important information

Esophageal cancer (esophageal carcinoma) is a rare disease. In Switzerland, around 600 people are affected by it each year, which makes up about 1% of all cancers.


Share this article

article hero thumbnail

Esophageal cancer usually develops from the cells in the mucosa of the esophagus. Often, those affected do not feel any symptoms for a long time. Therefore, the disease is usually diagnosed at a late stage. In this case the prognosis for patients is very poor. In recent years, however, new therapies have been developed that can expand the treatment spectrum and significantly improve the success of treatment.


In Switzerland, about 600 people are diagnosed with esophageal cancer each year, and about 450 die from it annually.


Esophageal cancer is the 9th most common cancer worldwide. It affects more than 600,000 people each year.

Esophageal cancer occurs primarily in older adults. Of those affected, approximately 75% are men and 25% are women.

Esophageal cancer (esophageal carcinoma)

In esophageal cancer, cancer cells form in the tissue of the esophagus.

The esophagus is an elastic muscular tube that carries food and fluid from the mouth to the stomach. The wall of the esophagus is made up of several layers of tissue, including mucosa, muscle, and connective tissue.

Esophageal cancer starts at the inner lining of the esophagus and spreads outward as it grows through the other layers. If the cancer starts from the mucosal cells located in the upper part of the esophagus, it is called “squamous cell carcinoma.” If the cancer originates from the mucosal gland cells located in the lower third of the esophagus, it is called “adenocarcinoma.” As with all cancers, esophageal cancer can metastasize or spread to other areas of the body.

Signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer

In most cases, esophageal cancer does not cause symptoms for a long period of time.
The following signs may indicate esophageal cancer:

  • trouble swallowing, first with solid foods, and later with soft and liquid foods as well
  • unusual gagging when swallowing food
  • painful esophageal spasms
  • heartburn or frequent belching (reflux)
  • unwanted weight loss
  • pain and hoarseness

These symptoms may have other, more innocuous causes than cancer. However, they should always be checked by a doctor. The earlier a tumor is detected, the better the treatment options and chances of recovery.

Treatment options

The main treatment option for esophageal cancer is surgery. The goal of surgery is to completely remove the tumor and thus cure the disease. Depending on the case, esophageal cancer may also be treated with radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy or combinations of these.

Esophageal Cancer Risk Factors

It is believed that several factors can contribute to the development of esophageal cancer. These include:

  • Smoking
  • increased alcohol consumption
  • Barrett’s esophagus, which is cell changes in the lower part of the esophagus that can lead to esophageal cancer
  • Gastric reflux, also known as “heartburn”, is considered the most common cause of Barrett’s esophagus
  • Obesity

Based on current knowledge, esophageal cancer is not hereditary. However, familial clusters are possible.

Prevention of Esophageal Cancer

The risk of developing esophageal cancer can be reduced by the following factors:

Avoid tobacco and alcohol

Tobacco and alcohol are considered the most important lifestyle risk factors for esophageal cancer. Each of these factors alone increases the risk of esophageal cancer many times, and the risk is even greater if they are combined. Avoiding tobacco and alcohol is one of the best ways of limiting your risk of esophageal cancer.

Watch your diet, body weight, and physical activity

Following a healthy eating pattern and staying at a healthy weight are also important. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables as well as being physically active may help reduce the risk of esophageal cancer.

Get treated for reflux or Barrett’s esophagus

Treating people with reflux may help prevent Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer. Reflux can be treated with diet and lifestyle changes, as well as medications or surgery. There are also several options to treat the cellular changes in Barrett’s esophagus.

CH-NON-01038; 02/2021