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What Are the Main Causes of Esophageal Cancer?

It is not clear what causes esophageal cancer. It is believed that mutation (change) in the genes of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) causes cancer.

It is not clear what causes esophageal cancer. It is believed that mutation (change) in the genes of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) causes cancer. This mutation results in uncontrolled cell division and cell growth. These cells form a tumor in the esophagus and can spread to nearby structures.

Chronic irritation of the esophagus is thought to be the main cause of esophageal cancer. This chronic irritation can be caused by

  • Tobacco: Tobacco consumption in any form, such as smoking cigars, cigarettes, pipes or chewing tobacco, puts a person at risk for getting esophageal cancer.
  • Alcohol: The chances of developing esophageal cancer increase with the amount of alcohol intake.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): In GERD, there is backflow (reflux) of gastric juice from the stomach into the esophagus. Chronic reflux increases your chances of developing esophageal cancer.
  • Barrett esophagus: Chronic GERD can cause the healthy cells of the esophagus to turn into abnormal cells known as gland cells. These gland cells put you at a greater risk for esophageal cancer than GERD alone.
  • Achalasia cardia: The lower end of the esophagus fails to relax in achalasia cardia. This leads to food trapping that irritates the esophagus and puts you at risk for esophageal cancer.
  • Lye: Lye is an ingredient found commonly in house cleaners. Its accidental ingestion can increase your risk for esophageal cancer.
  • Diet: High intake of processed meat and frequently drinking very hot liquids can irritate the esophagus and increase your risk for esophageal cancer.
  • Aflatoxins: Exposure to toxin-producing fungi can irritate the esophagus. These are found in the molds that grow on the improperly stored food grains.

Certain risk factors can also increase your chances of getting esophageal cancer. They include

  • Obesity
  • Increasing age (45-70 years)
  • Male gender
  • Physical inactivity
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • History of lung cancer, mouth cancer or throat cancer
  • Prior surgery on the stomach (gastrectomy)
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection (rare cause)
  • Rare conditions
  • Tylosis (a hereditary disorder that causes extra growth on the esophagus)
  • Plummer-Vinson syndrome (a condition in which webs develop in the upper parts of the esophagus)

How is esophageal cancer treated?

Doctors need to consider a few factors before deciding on any treatment for esophageal cancer. These factors include the type of cells in the cancer and your age, overall health and personal preferences. The treatments include

  • Surgery (removal of the tumor or cutting of the unhealthy esophagus with or without the upper part of the stomach)
  • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs to shrink the tumor)
  • Radiation therapy (focusing high-energy beams on the tumor to destroy the cancer cells)
  • Targeted therapy (using medications that target the processes responsible for cancer)
  • Immunotherapy (using medications that use your immune system to fight cancer)

How can you prevent esophageal cancer?

Some risk factors of esophageal cancer cannot be modified, such as your age, gender and hereditary link. You can, however, take a few steps to prevent other factors from increasing your chances of developing this cancer. These include

  • Quit tobacco consumption: If you are not sure about how you will cope with quitting smoking and other forms of tobacco intake, talk to your doctor. Medications and counseling sessions can help you kick off the habit.
  • Cut back on alcohol: Restrict alcohol intake to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
  • High intake of fruits and vegetables: A diet high in fruits and vegetables seems to reduce the risk of esophageal cancer.
  • Keep your weight under check: Consume healthy foods and be physically active to maintain a healthy weight. If you want to shed off those extra pounds, try to aim for only 1 to 2 pounds per week.


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Medically Reviewed on 4/23/2021


Masab M. Esophageal Cancer. Medscape.

Mayo Clinic. Esophageal cancer.

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