Esophageal Cancer

Radiologic imaging of esophageal cancerEsophageal cancer is a cancer that occurs in the esophagus, which is the long tube that runs from your throat to your stomach. While it is rare — esophageal cancer affects about 14,000 people in the U.S. annually — our nationally recognized team of specialists has decades of experience diagnosing and treating esophageal cancer.

At Penn Medicine, we take a multidisciplinary approach to esophageal cancer treatment. You’ll work with a gastroenterologist, a medical oncologist, a radiation oncologist, a gastrointestinal (GI) surgeon and a thoracic surgeon — all with expertise in esophageal cancer — to develop a treatment plan appropriate for your cancer’s stage and your overall health.

Types of Esophageal Cancer

There are two main types of esophageal cancer: adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. These are named for how the cancer cells look under a microscope. Both types begin in the cells of the inner lining of the esophagus and are diagnosed, treated and managed in similar ways.

  • Adenocarcinoma is cancer that begins in the intestinal cells that make and release mucus and other fluids. Adenocarcinoma is usually found in the lower part of the esophagus, near the stomach. Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of esophageal cancer in the United States.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma is a cancer that begins in the flat, skin-like cells lining the esophagus and is usually found in the upper part of the esophagus. While less common in the U.S., squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of esophageal cancer worldwide.

Some cases of esophageal cancer are hereditary, but they are very rare. Significant risk factors for esophageal cancer include poorly managed acid reflux, smoking, inadequate diet and obesity.

Signs and Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer

Common symptoms of esophageal cancer include difficulty swallowing and unexplained weight loss. If you have symptoms that are consistent with esophageal cancer, your gastroenterologist may order imaging to help diagnose and stage esophageal cancer.

Other symptoms include:

  • A hoarse voice or a persistent cough that doesn't go away in two weeks
  • Dysphagia (problems swallowing or feeling like food gets stuck)
  • Heartburn
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Pain in the chest or back
  • Pain when swallowing

An early diagnosis can improve treatment outcomes. If you have the symptoms above, you should consult your physician.

Esophageal Cancer Second Opinions

We both give and welcome second opinions if you’re facing an esophageal cancer diagnosis. We’ll meet with you to answer your questions so you can make a more informed decision about your care.

During a second opinion, one of our esophageal cancer experts will review your medical history and your current diagnosis. We’ll then make a recommendation for the best treatment approach for you.

Navigating Esophageal Cancer Care

Each step of your esophageal cancer diagnosis, treatment and management comes with different needs and issues that should be addressed.

Our oncology nurse navigators are experts in complex health care situations. They are committed to making sure you are as comfortable as possible while at Penn Medicine. Oncology navigation specialists will also serve as a consistent point of contact and a reliable source for advice, support and direction for you and your family.