Oesophageal cancer

Oesophageal cancer

What is oesophageal cancer?

Oesophageal cancer begins when abnormal cells develop in the innermost layer (mucosa) of the oesophagus. A tumour can start at any point along the length of the oesophagus.

Learn more about:

Types of oesophageal cancer

There are two main subtypes:

Oesophageal adenocarcinoma – often starts near the gastro-oesophageal junction and is linked with a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus. Adenocarcinomas are the most common form of oesophageal cancer in Australia.

Oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma – starts in the thin, flat cells in the lining of the oesophagus, which are called squamous cells. It often begins in the middle and upper part of the oesophagus. In Australia, squamous cell carcinomas are less common than adenocarcinomas.

If it is not found and treated early, oesophageal cancer can spread through the lymphatic system to nearby lymph nodes or through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, most commonly the liver and lungs. It can also grow through the oesophageal wall and invade nearby structures.

Rare types of oesophageal cancer

Some less common types of cancer can affect the oesophagus. These include small cell carcinomas, lymphomas, neuroendocrine tumours and gastrointestinal stromal tumours. These types of cancer aren’t discussed here and treatment may be different. For more information, call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Some cancers start at the point where the stomach meets the oesophagus (the gastro-oesophageal junction). Depending on the type of gastro-oesophageal cancer, it may be treated similarly to stomach cancer. For more information about your situation, talk to your treatment team.

The oesophagus and stomach

The oesophagus and stomach are part of the upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is part of the digestive system. The digestive system helps the body break down food and turn it into energy.

The oesophagus (food pipe or gullet) is a long, muscular tube. It moves food, fluid and saliva from the mouth and throat to the stomach. A valve (sphincter) at the end of the oesophagus stops acid and food moving from the stomach back into the oesophagus.

The stomach is a hollow, muscular sac, located between the end of the oesophagus and the beginning of the small bowel. The stomach expands to store and help digest food that has been swallowed. It also helps the body absorb some vitamins and minerals.

Juices in the stomach break down food into a thick fluid, which then moves into the small bowel. In the small bowel, nutrients from the broken-down food are absorbed into the bloodstream. The waste matter moves into the large bowel, where fluids are absorbed into the body. The solid waste matter is passed out of the body as a bowel movement.

The oesophageal wall has three layers of tissue and an outer covering known as the adventitia. The stomach wall has four layers of tissue.

The stomach and the oesophagus

oesophagus and stomach

The oesophageal wall is made up of the:

1. Mucosa (moist innermost layer)
  • made up of squamous cells
2. Submucosa (supports the mucosa)
  • glands in the submucosa produce fluid (mucus)
  • this fluid helps to move food through the oesophagus
3. Muscle layer
  • known as the muscularis propria
  • produces contractions to help push food down the oesophagus and into the stomach
4. Outer covering
  • known as the adventitia
  • connective tissue supporting the oesophagus

Who gets oesophageal cancer?

This is an uncommon cancer. In Australia, about 1500 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer each year. Men are much more likely than women to be diagnosed with this cancer. It is more common in people over 60, but can occur in younger people. About one in 160 men and one in 580 women are likely to develop oesophageal cancer before the age of 75.

What causes oesophageal cancer?

The exact causes of oesophageal cancer are unknown, but the factors listed below may increase your risk. Having one or more of these risk factors does not mean you will develop cancer.

Known risk factors for oesophageal cancer

Squamous cell carcinoma
  • drinking alcohol
  • smoking
  • older age (being over 60)
  • drinking very hot liquids

GORD and Barrett’s oesophagus

Reflux is when stomach acid flows up into the oesophagus. Some people with reflux are diagnosed with gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD).

Over time, stomach acid can damage the lining of the oesophagus, causing inflammation or ulceration (oesophagitis). This may cause the squamous cells lining the oesophagus to be replaced by column-shaped cells, which look like the cells lining the stomach. This condition is called Barrett’s oesophagus and it can lead to oesophageal adenocarcinoma.

If you have Barrett’s oesophagus, your doctor may recommend you have regular endoscopies to look for early cell changes that may lead to cancer. Most people with Barrett’s oesophagus will not develop oesophageal cancer.

Click on the icon below to download a PDF booklet on stomach and oesophageal cancer

    Understanding Stomach and Oesophageal Cancers

  • 786 kB

Printed copies are available for free - Call 13 11 20 to order

Instructions for downloading and reading EPUB files

Apple devices

The iBooks application must be installed on your Apple device before you can read the EPUB.
Different ways to download an EPUB file to your Apple device:

  • email EPUB files to yourself and transfer the attachment to iBooks.
  • copy EPUB files into DropBox (or a similar service) and use the DropBox app to send them to iBooks.
  • open EPUB files directly from Mobile Safari and open them in iBooks, where they are saved automatically by downloading the EPUB from the website.

Need more help? Visit: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4059


To download an EPUB file to your Kobo from a Windows computer:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • select “Open folder to view files” to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • open your “Finder” application.
  • select “Kobo eReader” from the listed devices to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, probably in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
Need more information? Visit: http://www.kobo.com/help/koboaura/response/?id=3784&type=3

Sony Reader

To download an EPUB file on your Sony Reader™:

  • ensure you have already installed the Reader™ Library for PC/Mac software
  • select the eBook you want from our website and click the link to download it.
  • connect the Reader™ to your computer.
  • open the Reader™ Library software and click “Library” in the left-hand pane and select the eBook to view it.

Need more help? Visit: https://au.readerstore.sony.com/apps_and_devices/

Amazon Kindle 2nd Generation devices

EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=help_search_1-1?ie=UTF8&nodeId=200767340&qid=1395967989&sr=1-1
For more information on accessing a PDF on your Kindle™, visit www.amazon.com/manageyourkindle, log in to your account and click on Personal Document Settings.
Need more help? Visit https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=200375630

Android and PC

You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.

This information was last reviewed in October 2019
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