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Cancer explained

Oesophageal cancer – everything you need to know

1st August 2021

Oesophageal cancer is a type of cancer you might not hear much about – but our experts are here to answer your questions. What is oesophageal cancer? What causes it? Is it common? Can oesophageal cancer be cured? And what are we doing to start new cures for oesophageal cancer?

What is oesophageal cancer?

Oesophageal cancer is a type of cancer that grows in your oesophagus – the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach, also known as the gullet or food pipe. Oesophageal cancer can develop anywhere along the food pipe and most cases fall into one of two categories:

Adenocarcinoma is the most common form of oesophageal cancer and is linked to a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form of oesophageal cancer and has been linked to smoking and drinking alcohol.

What causes oesophageal cancer?

Anyone can get oesophageal cancer, but certain things can increase the risk of developing it. We've pulled together the known causes and risk factors for oesophageal cancer.

Risk factors for oesophageal cancer:

Age: the risk of being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer increases with age, it’s not very common under the age of 45

Sex: People born as male can be more likely to develop oesophageal cancer

Medical History: Certain medical conditions, including severe acid-reflux or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD) and Barrett’s oesophagus, can increase the risk of developing oesophageal cancer.

Lifestyle: many cases of oesophageal cancer can be linked to lifestyle, including smoking, drinking of alcohol and being overweight. It is also recommended to let hot beverages cool down before drinking to avoid damage to the oesophagus.

All about oesophageal cancer

What are the symptoms of oesophageal cancer?

Oesophageal cancer can have no symptoms or symptoms that might be very familiar to the people experiencing them. But oesophageal cancer, like most cancers, can be best treated when found early. That’s why it’s important to check out the following symptoms with your GP, even when you think they are “normal” for you:

  • Problems swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Feeling/being sick
  • Heartburn/acid reflux
  • Indigestion, e.g. burping a lot
  • Cough that is not getting better
  • Hoarse voice
  • Loss of appetite/losing weight without trying to
  • Feeling tired/no energy
  • Pain in your throat/middle of your chest, especially when swallowing
How is oesophageal cancer diagnosed?

When you experience any of the above symptoms, it’s worth checking them out with your GP, whether you have a pre-existing condition such as GORD or not. The GP may examine your stomach and neck and might order a blood test. You could also be referred to a specialist or the hospital for further scans. This could include a gastroscopy, where a doctor inserts a camera into your oesophagus to check for problems and maybe take a tissue sample.

What are we doing to find new cures for oesophageal cancer?

We know there won’t be a single cure for cancer, but by starting new cancer cures around the world we will have more treatment options for each patient and improve survival in the long term.

We are currently funding two projects to start new cures for oesophageal cancer:

Dr Maria Alcolea, in Cambridge, is finding ways to detect oesophageal cancer sooner. She is looking for biomarkers that could be used to spot oesophageal cancer earlier – when it is much easier to treat.    

Dr Denes Hnisz, in Berlin, is exploring the 3D structure of the genome in oesophageal cancer cells compared to healthy cells. He hopes that better understanding differences in these structures might reveal new treatment targets in oesophageal cancer.

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