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Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal Cancer and the Environment

Esophageal cancer is a cancer that forms in the esophagus, a muscular tube in the chest that is part of the digestive tract. This tube plays an important role in the digestive system by moving food from the mouth to the stomach. The walls of the esophagus have several layers of tissue, which are built of different types of cells. Because there are two kinds of cells that can line the esophagus, there are two main types of esophageal cancer:

  • adenocarcinoma, and
  • squamous cell carcinoma.

These two kinds of esophageal cancer have different risk factors and affect people in different ways. Each year in the United States, about 15,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with esophageal cancer. On the Tracking Network, you can also find data on the prevalence of smoking, which might be helpful when looking at the incidence of esophageal cancer. Research is needed to better understand the relationship between the environment and esophageal cancer, which may help
determine other potential risk factors for this disease.

Exposure and Risk


Smoking is the most consistent risk factor for esophageal cancer. Smokers are five times more likely to develop esophageal cancer than non-smokers.


Men have a higher risk for developing esophageal cancer. This disease is 3 to 4 times more common among men than among women. Survival rates for esophageal cancer are higher among men than women and higher among whites than African Americans.


There are significant differences in the number of diagnoses of adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma among people of different races and ethnicities. Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of esophageal cancer among whites, while squamous cell carcinoma is more common in African Americans.


The risk for developing esophageal cancer increases with age and is very low among children and young adults. Less than 15% of cases are in people younger than age 55. Although adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma have many similar risk factors, there are some risk factors that are unique to each type of cancer. Adenocarcinoma may be related to

  • having acid reflux (the backward flow of stomach acid),
  • having a disease of the lower esophagus known as Barrett esophagus, or
  • being obese.

Squamous cell carcinoma may be related to being a heavy drinker of alcohol.

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You may be able to reduce your risk of developing esophageal cancer by avoiding or changing behaviors that are known risk factors for the disease. These healthy behaviors may help prevent esophageal cancers:

  • Don't smoke or use any tobacco products.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption. If you do choose to drink alcohol, drink in moderation.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
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