The oesophagus is the medical name for the gullet. It is part of the digestive system. The oesophagus is a long tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach. The top part of oesophagus lies behind the windpipe (trachea). The bottom part runs down through the chest between the spine and the heart.
The body is made up of millions of different types of cells. Cancer happens when some of the cells multiply in an abnormal way, causing a growth called a tumour to form. Tumours can be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). They can occur in any part of the body where the cells multiply abnormally.
Cancer of the oesophagus is relatively rare in the UK, although it has become more common in the last 30 years. Currently, it accounts for approximately 3% of all cancer cases. Approximately 7,560 people are diagnosed with the condition each year. Men and people over the age of 55 are most commonly affected.
There are two main types of cancer of the oesophagus.
What are the symptoms of oesophageal cancer?
Small tumours generally do not cause pain. When symptoms do occur, they usually include:
Causes of oesophageal cancer
Each year, nearly 7600 people in the UK are diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. It is becoming more common in Europe and North America. Men are affected more than women and it occurs generally in older people.
There are two types: squamous cell carcinoma and oesophageal cancer (which is known as adenocarcinoma). The causes are unknown, but cancer of the oesophagus would appear to be more common in people who have long-term acid reflux (backflow of stomach acid into the oesophagus). Damage to the oesophagus caused by acid reflux is known as Barrett's oesophagus.
Barrett’s oesophagus is a condition where abnormal cells develop in the lining of the lower end of the oesophagus. It is not a cancer, but over a long period of time a small number of people with this condition (around 1 in 100) may develop a cancer of the oesophagus.
Cancer of the oesophagus is more commonly seen in some populations in the Far East and Central Asia, which suggests that diet, or the environment, may affect its development. Squamous cell carcinoma is more common among smokers and people who drink a lot of alcohol (especially spirits) or have a poor diet.
Other conditions affecting the oesophagus, such as achalasia, may also very occasionally lead to cancer. Achalasia is where the muscle that controls the opening between the oesophagus and the stomach does not relax properly. This makes food build up in the oesophagus and stops it emptying into the stomach.
In most people, cancer of the oesophagus is not caused by an inherited faulty gene, and so other members of your family are not likely to be at risk of developing it. However, a very small number of people who have a rare inherited skin condition known as tylosis may develop oesophageal cancer.
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