Oesophageal cancer

The oesophagus is the medical term used for the gullet or the food pipe. The oesophagus is part of the digestive system and is the tube that carries food from your mouth down to your stomach. The top part of the oesophagus lies just behind the windpipe (trachea). The bottom part of it runs down through the chest to your stomach.

Oesophageal cancer isn’t a common cancer, but it tends to affect men more than women. Currently, around 8,750 people in the UK are diagnosed with it each year. It’s become more common over the last 40 years, mainly affecting people over the age of 60.

There are two main cancers that can affect the oesophagus:


This type of cancer forms in the lower parts where the oesophagus joins to the stomach. This is the gastro-oesophageal junction. Cancer develops here when the cells in the mucous glands begin multiplying abnormally.

Squamous cell carcinoma

When cells within the lining of the upper and middle part of the oesophagus begin multiplying uncontrollably, squamous cell carcinoma develops.

scientific skeleton figure


The two biggest risk factors for oesophageal cancer are drinking and smoking. Other risk factors include:

Obesity and excess weight

Being overweight or obese makes you more likely to develop oesophageal cancer. More than 1 in 4 diagnoses are linked to excess weight.


Cancer of the oesophagus is more common in people over the age of 60.

Chronic Heartburn

Chronic heartburn or (GORD) gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, means acid travels from your stomach and back up your oesophagus. This over time can cause damage to the lining of the oesophagus.

Barrett’s oesophagus

Around 1 in 5 people out of 100 with Barrett’s oesophagus go on to develop cancer.


This is a rare condition where the stomach doesn’t relax, this results in the food and liquid travelling back up the oesophagus and over time, causing damage.

Radiation exposure

Previous radiation treatment will increase your risk of cancer as healthy tissue gets damaged.

Signs and symptoms

When cancer of the oesophagus first develops, it rarely causes symptoms, but as the tumour grows, more symptoms will become apparent. The most common symptoms to look out for are:

  • – Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • – Unexplained weight loss
  • – Persistent indigestion (dyspepsia)
  • – A persistent cough
  • – Hoarse voice
  • – Vomiting
  • – Coughing up blood

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