Esophageal Cancer (cont.)

What is the esophagus?

The esophagus is a muscular tube in the chest. It's about 10 inches (25 centimeters) long.

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

The wall of the esophagus has several layers:

  • Inner layer or lining: The lining (mucosa) of the esophagus is wet, which helps food to pass to the stomach.
  • Submucosa: Glands in the submucosa layer make mucus, which helps keep the lining of the esophagus wet.
  • Muscle layer: The muscles push the food down to the stomach.
  • Outer layer: The outer layer covers the esophagus.

Cancer Cells

Cancer begins in cells, the building blocks that make up all tissues and organs of the body, including the esophagus.

Normal cells in the esophagus and other parts of the body grow and divide to form new cells as they are needed. 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 doesn't need them, and old or damaged cells don't die as they should. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.

A tumor in the esophagus can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer):

  • Benign tumors:
    • Are rarely a threat to life
    • Don't invade the tissues around them
    • Don't spread to other parts of the body
    • Can be removed and don't usually grow back
  • Malignant tumors (cancer of the esophagus):
    • May be a threat to life
    • Can invade and damage nearby organs and tissues
    • Can spread to other parts of the body
    • Sometimes can be removed but may grow back

Esophageal cancer cells can spread by breaking away from an esophageal tumor. They can travel through blood vessels or lymph vessels to reach other parts of the body. After spreading, cancer cells may attach to other tissues and grow to form new tumors that may damage those tissues.

When esophageal cancer spreads from its original place to another part of the body, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells and the same name as the original tumor. For example, if esophageal cancer spreads to the liver, the cancer cells in the liver are actually esophageal cancer cells. The disease is metastatic esophageal cancer, not liver cancer. For that reason, it is treated as cancer of the esophagus, not liver cancer.

Patient Comments

Viewers share their comments

Esophageal Cancer - Symptoms and Signs Question: What were the symptoms and signs you experienced with esophageal cancer?
Esophageal Cancer - Prognosis and Stage Question: What is your esophageal cancer prognosis? What stage is your esophageal cancer?
Esophageal Cancer - Types Question: Do you or someone you know have adenocarcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus? Please share your story.
Esophageal Cancer - Risk Factors Question: Do you have any of the risk factors for esophageal cancer? What are they, and what are your concerns?
Esophageal Cancer - Diagnosis Question: What kinds of tests and exams led to a diagnosis of esophageal cancer?
Esophageal Cancer - Treatment Question: What kinds of treatment, including radiation or chemotherapy, did you receive for esophageal cancer?
Esophageal Cancer - Surgery Question: Please describe the surgical experience you or someone you know had for esophageal cancer.
Esophageal Cancer - Second Opinion Question: How did you go about getting a second opinion for your esophageal cancer?
Esophageal Cancer - Follow-Up Care Question: What type of follow-up care did you receive for your esophageal cancer?