Esophageal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the esophagus. The esophagus is a muscular tube that moves food and liquids from the throat to the stomach. The most common types of esophageal cancer are squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma begins in flat cells lining the esophagus. Adenocarcinoma begins in cells that make and release mucus and other fluids. Smoking and heavy alcohol use increase the risk of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. Gastroesophageal reflux disease and Barrett esophagus may increase the risk of esophageal adenocarcinoma. Esophageal cancer is often diagnosed at an advanced stage because there are no early signs or symptoms. The most common presenting symptom of esophageal cancer is dysphagia (see Presentation). Esophagogastroduodenoscopy allows direct visualization and biopsies of the tumor, while endoscopic ultrasonography is the most sensitive test for determining the depth of penetration of the tumor and the presence of enlarged periesophageal lymph nodes. In patients who appear to have localized esophageal cancer, positron emission tomography (PET) scanning may be useful as part of the baseline staging.
Other imaging studies may be valuable in selected patients. Esophageal cancer is the seventh leading cause of cancer death worldwide. In some regions, such as areas of northern Iran, some areas of southern Russia, and northern China, the incidence of esophageal carcinoma may be as high as 800 cases per 100,000 population. Unlike in the United States, squamous cell carcinoma is responsible for 95% of all esophageal cancers worldwide. Surgery has traditionally been the treatment for esophageal carcinoma. The first successful resection was performed in 1913 by Torek. In the 1930s, Ohsawa in Japan and Marshall in the United States were the first to perform successful single-stage transthoracic esophagectomies with continent reconstruction.
Nonoperative therapy is usually reserved for patients who are not candidates for surgery because of clinical conditions or advanced disease. The ideal treatment for localized esophageal cancer is sometimes debated across practice cultures and subspecialties. Defendants of surgical treatment argue that resection is the only treatment modality to offer curative intent; defendants of the nonsurgical approach claim that esophagectomy has a prohibitive index of mortality and that esophageal cancer is an incurable disease.