Esophageal Cancer - Symptoms & Causes

What is esophageal cancer?

Esophageal cancer can occur anywhere in the esophagus, usually beginning in the cells that line the inner walls of the esophagus. The esophagus is part of the digestive system. It is a long, hollow tube that helps to move food from the throat to your stomach.

Esophageal cancer is more common in men and older persons, and in Singapore it is the 10th most common cause of cancer death among men.

Types of esophageal cancer

Squamous cell carcinoma

This begins in the squamous cells which line the esophagus. It usually develops in the upper or middle part of the esophagus but it can develop anywhere along the esophagus.


This begins in the mucous-producing glands that line the esophagus. It usually starts in the lower part of the esophagus (distal esophageal cancer), closer to the stomach.

What are the symptoms of esophageal cancer?

In its early stages, esophageal cancer usually does not produce any symptoms.

At its later stages, symptoms of esophageal cancer include:

  • Coughing
  • Progressive difficulty in solids followed by liquids
  • Hoarse voice
  • Indigestion or heartburn that gets worse
  • Pain, pressure or burning sensation in the chest
  • Regurgitating food and saliva
  • Unexplained or unintended weight loss

What causes esophageal cancer?

It is unclear what causes the cellular changes that lead to esophageal cancer. However, there are risk factors that appear to increase a person’s risk of developing it.

What are the risk factors for esophageal cancer?

Some conditions may increase your risk for developing esophageal cancer:

  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition in which digestive juices from the stomach flow backward into the esophagus
  • Barrett’s esophagus, a condition in which the cells lining the lower part of the esophagus have undergone changes that could lead to cancer
  • Obesity, which increases the risk of developing GERD
  • Achalasia, where the smooth muscle fibres of the esophagus are unable to relax

Other factors that increase your risk include:

  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Smoking
  • Esophageal strictures, which develop after ingesting corrosive agents

What are the complications of esophageal cancer?

As the cancer advances, it can result in complications such as:

  • Obstruction of the esophagus, which can make it difficult for food and liquid to pass through
  • Bleeding, which may occur gradually or suddenly

How do you prevent esophageal cancer?

While there is no certain way to prevent esophageal cancer, these steps may help reduce your risk:

  • Quit smoking
  • Avoid alcohol or consume in moderation
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
This page has been reviewed by our medical content reviewers.

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