Esophageal Cancer (cont.)

What is the esophagus?

The esophagus is in the chest. It's about 10 inches long.

This organ is part of the digestive tract. Food moves from the mouth through the esophagus to the stomach.

The esophagus is a muscular tube. The wall of the esophagus has several layers:

  • Inner layer or lining (mucosa): The lining of the esophagus is moist so that food can pass to the stomach.
  • Submucosa: The glands in this layer make mucus. Mucus keeps the esophagus moist.
  • Muscle layer: The muscles push the food down to the stomach.
  • Outer layer: The outer layer covers the esophagus. Above the diaphragm this is called the adventitia, and below the diaphragm, the serosa.

Cancer Cells

Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up tissues. Tissues make up the organs of the body.

Normal cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them. When normal cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells take their place.

Sometimes, this process goes wrong. New cells form when the body does not need them, and old or damaged cells do not die as they should. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.

Growths in the wall of the esophagus can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). The smooth inner wall may have an abnormal rough area, an area of tiny bumps, or a tumor. Benign growths are not as harmful as malignant growths:

  • Benign growths:
    • are rarely a threat to life
    • can be removed and probably won't grow back
    • don't invade the tissues around them
    • don't spread to other parts of the body
  • Malignant growths:
    • may be a threat to life sometimes
    • can be removed but can grow back
    • can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs
    • can spread to other parts of the body

Esophageal cancer begins in cells in the inner layer of the esophagus. Over time, the cancer may invade more deeply into the esophagus and nearby tissues.

Cancer cells can spread by breaking away from the original tumor. They may enter blood vessels or lymph vessels, which branch into all the tissues of the body. The cancer cells may attach to other tissues and grow to form new tumors that may damage those tissues. The spread of cancer cells is called metastasis. See the Staging section for information about esophageal cancer that has spread.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/14/2014

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