Find Information About:

Drugs & Supplements

Get information and reviews on prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements. Search by name or medical condition.

Pill Identifier

Pill Identifier

Having trouble identifying your pills?

Enter the shape, color, or imprint of your prescription or OTC drug. Our pill identification tool will display pictures that you can compare to your pill.

Get Started

My Medicine

Save your medicine, check interactions, sign up for FDA alerts, create family profiles and more.

Get Started

WebMD Health Experts and Community

Talk to health experts and other people like you in WebMD's Communities. It's a safe forum where you can create or participate in support groups and discussions about health topics that interest you.

  • Second Opinion

    Second Opinion

    Read expert perspectives on popular health topics.

  • Community


    Connect with people like you, and get expert guidance on living a healthy life.

Got a health question? Get answers provided by leading organizations, doctors, and experts.

Get Answers

Sign up to receive WebMD's award-winning content delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up

Cancer Health Center

Font Size

Esophageal Cancer On the Rise

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD

The past 25 years have seen the rates of some cancers fall, thanks to better prevention efforts. During the same period, though, the frequency of some esophageal cancers rose dramatically. The cause of this increase remains a mystery, although important risk factors have been identified.

Understanding the causes of esophageal cancer, and changing a few simple habits can reduce your risk for this uncommon but dangerous disease.

Two Faces of Esophageal Cancer

The esophagus is the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. This year, about 14,550 people will be diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. There are two major kinds of esophageal cancer:

  • Squamous cell cancer
  • Adenocarcinoma

Their names refer to different types of cells in the esophagus that turn into cancer. The two kinds of esophageal cancer have different causes, and affect different parts of the esophagus. Once cancer is present, though, the two kinds of esophageal cancer act similarly.

Squamous cell cancer


Usual location

Middle portion of the esophagus

Where the esophagus meets the stomach (lowest portion)

Most common causes

Alcohol, tobacco

Barrett's esophagus (caused by acid reflux)

Groups commonly affected

African-American men, Asian-American men

Caucasian men

Prognosis and treatment

About the same

Esophageal Cancer: A Mysterious Change

As recently as 1975, 75% of esophageal cancers were squamous cell cancers. Since then, the pattern of esophageal cancer changed in a major way:

  • The rate of squamous cell cancers has fallen slightly.
  • Adenocarcinoma rates have risen dramatically. Adenocarcinoma struck four people per million in 1975, but that rate rose to 23 people per million in 2001. This makes it the fastest-growing cancer in the U.S., according to the National Cancer Institute.
  • As a result, adenocarcinoma cases now outnumber squamous cell cancers. The total rate of esophageal cancer has also risen.

"Clearly something has happened" to create the change, says Manjit Bains, MD, a thoracic surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. As for why, though, "at this time there is more conjecture than facts."

Improved detection rates aren't the cause, according to researchers. Experts believe some risk factor for adenocarcinoma must also be increasing--but can't say what. A leading suspect: rising rates of obesity -- possibly causing a higher incidence of reflux, which is a risk factor for adenocarcinoma, according to Bains.

1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Today on WebMD

Colorectal cancer cells
New! I AM Not Cancer Facebook Group
Lung cancer xray
See it in pictures, plus read the facts.
sauteed cherry tomatoes
Fight cancer one plate at a time.
Ovarian cancer illustration
Real Cancer Perspectives
Jennifer Goodman Linn self-portrait
what is your cancer risk
colorectal cancer treatment advances
breast cancer overview slideshow
prostate cancer overview
lung cancer overview slideshow
ovarian cancer overview slideshow
Actor Michael Douglas