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Oesophageal cancer develops in the tissues lining the oesophagus, a hollow, muscular, tube-shaped organ of the digestive system, responsible for the movement of food and liquid from the mouth to the stomach. 

There are two main types of Oesophageal Cancer. The first and most common type is Oesophageal adenocarcinoma, which often begins near the gastro-oesophageal junction (where the oesophagus and the stomach meet). This type of oesophageal cancer is linked to a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus, however, people without this condition can develop oesophageal adenocarcinomas. The less common type of oesophageal cancer is called oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma. This type of oesophageal cancer usually develops in the squamous cells of the upper and middle portions of the oesophagus. There are also some rarer forms of oesophageal cancer, including oesophageal small cell carcinoma, oesophageal sarcoma, oesophageal lymphoma, oesophageal melanoma and oesophageal choriocarcinoma.

Oesophageal cancers are generally diagnosed in people over 60, and is more prevalent in men. However, people of any age and any gender can develop this disease.


If Oesophageal Cancer is detected, it will be staged and graded based on size, metastasis and how the cancer cells look under the microscope. Staging and grading helps your doctors determine the best treatment for you.

Cancers can be staged using the TNM staging system:

  • T (tumour) indicates the size and depth of the tumour. 
  • N (nodes) indicates whether the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. 
  • M (metastasis) indicates whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. 

This system can also be used in combination with a numerical value, from stage 0 – IV: 

  • Stage 0: this stage describes cancer cells in the place of origin (or ‘in situ’) that have not spread to nearby tissue. 
  • Stage I: cancer cells have begun to spread to nearby tissue. It is not deeply embedded into nearby tissue and has not spread to lymph nodes. This stage is also known as early-stage cancer. 
  • Stage II: cancer cells have grown deeper into nearby tissue. Lymph nodes may or may not be affected. This is also known as localised cancer. 
  • Stage III: the cancer has become larger and has grown deeper into nearby tissue. Lymph nodes are generally affected at this stage. This is also classified as localised cancer. 
  • Stage IV: the cancer has spread to other tissues and organs in the body. This is also known as advanced or metastatic cancer. 

Cancers can also be graded based on the rate of growth and how likely they are to spread: 

  • Grade I: cancer cells present as slightly abnormal and are usually slow growing. This is also known as a low-grade tumour. 
  • Grade II: cancer cells present as abnormal and grow faster than grade I cancers. This is also known as an intermediate-grade tumour. 
  • Grade III: cancer cells present as very abnormal and grow quickly. This is also known as a high-grade tumour. 

Once your tumour has been staged and graded, your doctor may recommend genetic testing, which analyses your tumour DNA and can help determine which treatment has the greatest chance of success. They will then discuss the most appropriate course of treatment for you. 

Treatment is dependent on several factors, including location, stage of disease and overall health.

Treatment options for oesophageal cancer may include:

  • Surgery, potentially including:
    • Partial or total oesophagectomy (removal of part or all of the oesophagus).
    • Oesophagogastrectomy (removal of portions of the oesophagus and stomach).  
  • Radiation therapy.
  • Chemotherapy.
  • Clinical trials.
  • Palliative care.

For more information on treatment options, please refer to the Rare Cancers Australia Treatment Optionspage.

Risk factors

The risk factors for Oesophageal cancer will vary depending on the type you have.

Risk factors for Oesophageal Adenocarcinoma include:

  • Being overweight or obese.
  • Having pre-existing conditions of the gastrointestinal tract (e.g., Barrett’s oesophagus or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD)).
  • Smoking tobacco.
  • Being over 60 years of age.
  • Inherited medical conditions such as Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS) or Cowden syndrome.

Risk factors for Oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma include:

  • Drinking alcohol.
  • Smoking tobacco.
  • Being over 60 years of age.
  • Prior oesophageal damage.

Not everyone with these risk factors will develop the disease, and some people who have the disease may have none of these risk factors. See your general practitioner (GP) if you are concerned.

Early symptoms

Early-stage oesophageal cancer may present with little to no symptoms. As the tumour progresses, some of the following symptoms may appear:

  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • New heartburn or reflux.
  • Worsening indigestion.
  • Food or liquids ‘catching’ in the throat or choking episodes when swallowing.
  • Pain when swallowing.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Unexplained loss of appetite.
  • Discomfort in abdomen.
  • Fatigue.
  • Vomit or stool with blood.

Not everyone with the symptoms above will have cancer but see your general practitioner (GP) if you are concerned.


If your doctor suspects you have oesophageal cancer, they will order a variety of tests to confirm the diagnosis and refer you to a specialist for treatment.

Imaging & blood tests

The doctor will take images of your body using a computed tomography scan (CT scan), x-ray, and/or positron emission tomography (PET scan), depending on where the suspected the cancer is. The doctor may also look at other parts of the body and looks for signs of metastasis. Additionally, a blood test may be taken to assess your overall health and help guide treatment decisions.

Endoscopy & biopsy

An endoscopy is a surgical procedure that involves inserting a long, flexible tube with a light and small camera through your throat, oesophagus and small bowel, in order to examine the lining of the gastrointestinal tract and detect any abnormalities. You will be given a sedative or anaesthetic throughout the procedure. You will be asked to fast for several hours prior to the procedure. An endoscopy is often done as a day surgery. Your doctor will discuss the risks and any possible complications of this procedure prior to the procedure.

Throughout the procedure, your doctor may also perform an endoscopic ultrasound to guide the needle during a biopsy, or to check for signs of cancer metastasis. 

If any abnormalities are observed, your doctor will remove a small tissue sample for analysis.

Prognosis (Certain factors affect the prognosis and treatment options)

Unfortunately, the general prognosis for oesophageal cancer remains poor. While it is not possible to predict the exact course of the disease, your doctor may be able to give you a general idea based on stage, rate/depth of tumour growth, susceptibility to treatment, age, overall fitness and medical history. Generally, early-stage oesophageal cancers have a better prognosis. However, if the cancer is advanced and has spread, the prognosis may not be as good and there may be a higher risk of cancer recurrence.


Some references are to overseas websites. There may be references to drugs and clinical trials that are not available here in Australia.