Sarah Cannon - April 29, 2016

Cancer of the esophagus occurs when cancer cells develop in the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. During Esophageal Cancer Awareness Month this April, take a moment to learn about this type of cancer so you can feel confident knowing your treatment options if you or someone you care about is diagnosed with this disease.

What is esophageal cancer? 

There are two types of esophageal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.

  • Squamous cells line the upper portion of the esophagus. When these cells develop cancer, it is called squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Adenocarcinoma occurs when cancerous cells appear in the lower part of your esophagus, near the stomach.

How is esophageal cancer diagnosed?

Because there are few symptoms associated with esophageal cancer, it often is not detected until later stages. If esophageal cancer is suspected, your doctor may conduct one or more of the following tests: a barium swallow, CT scan, MRI, PET scan, upper endoscopy/EGD, biopsy or an endoscopic ultrasound. To learn more about each of these diagnostic tests, visit Sarah Cannon's website.

Treatment options for esophageal cancer

Patients who have been diagnosed with esophageal cancer have a variety of treatment options available to them in their cancer journey. The type of treatment chosen will depend on the type and stage of the cancer. Common treatments include:


Chemotherapy is a treatment option that administers drugs, either orally or by injection, that attack infected cells. This treatment shrinks the size of cancer cells and helps reduce the risk of the cancer returning. It is most effective when combined with radiation therapy or surgery.

Radiation therapy

Before surgery, radiation may be used to shrink cancer cells , making the cancer easier to remove; after surgery, its goal is to kill any cancer cells that may have been left behind. Radiation is often combined with surgery or chemotherapy, also called chemoradiation.

There are two ways radiation therapy can be administered:

  • External radiation targets the cancer from the outside of the body by angling radiation beams directly to the cancer cells.
  • I nternal radiation, or brachytherapy, is performed by placing an endoscope down the throat and placing radiation close to the cancer. Brachytherapy is often used with advanced esophageal cancers to shrink tumors so swallowing is easier.


Surgery to remove cancer of the esophagus, or esophagectomy, is most often used when the cancer is found in its early stages. Doctors are able to remove affected parts of the esophagus, then reattach the healthy portion to the stomach directly. How much of the esophagus is removed depends upon the stage of the tumor and where it is located at in the esophagus.

Other treatment options

In addition to the three main types of treatment for esophageal cancer above, other treatment options include: endoscopic mucosal resection, PDT (photodynamic therapy), radiofrequency ablation (RFA), laser ablation, electrocoagulation and esophageal stent .

Find more information and resources on esophageal cancer.