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Esophageal Cancer Prevention (PDQ®): Prevention - Patient Information [NCI]

This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

Esophageal Cancer Prevention

What is prevention?

Cancer prevention is action taken to lower the chance of getting cancer. By preventing cancer, the number of new cases of cancer in a group or population is lowered. Hopefully, this will lower the number of deaths caused by cancer.

To prevent new cancers from starting, scientists look at risk factors and protective factors. Anything that increases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer risk factor; anything that decreases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer protective factor.

Some risk factors for cancer can be avoided, but many cannot. For example, both smoking and inheriting certain genes are risk factors for some types of cancer, but only smoking can be avoided. Regular exercise and a healthy diet may be protective factors for some types of cancer. Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may lower your risk but it does not mean that you will not get cancer.

Different ways to prevent cancer are being studied, including:

  • Changing lifestyle or eating habits.
  • Avoiding things known to cause cancer.
  • Taking medicines to treat a precancerous condition or to keep cancer from starting.

General Information About Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the esophagus.

The esophagus is the hollow, muscular tube that moves food and liquid from the throat to the stomach. The wall of the esophagus is made up of several layers of tissue, including mucous membrane, muscle, and connective tissue. Esophageal cancer starts in the inside lining of the esophagus and spreads outward through the other layers as it grows.
Gastrointestinal (digestive) system anatomy; shows esophagus, liver, stomach, large intestine, and small intestine.
The stomach and esophagus are part of the upper digestive system.

The two most common types of esophageal cancer are named for the type of cells that become malignant (cancerous):

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Cancer that begins in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells lining the esophagus. This cancer is most often found in the upper and middle part of the esophagus but can occur anywhere along the esophagus. This is also called epidermoid carcinoma.
  • Adenocarcinoma: Cancer that begins in glandular (secretory) cells. Glandular cells in the lining of the esophagus produce and release fluids such as mucus. Adenocarcinomas usually start in the lower part of the esophagus, near the stomach.

See the following PDQ summaries for more information about esophageal cancer:

  • Esophageal Cancer Screening
  • Esophageal Cancer Treatment

Esophageal cancer is found more often in men.

Men are about three times more likely than women to develop esophageal cancer. The chance of developing esophageal cancer increases with age. Squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus is more common in blacks than in whites.

In the United States, the rates of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus have increased in the last 20 years. It is now more common than squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus. The rates of squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus are decreasing.

Esophageal Cancer Prevention

Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may help prevent cancer.

Avoiding cancer risk factors may help prevent certain cancers. Risk factors include smoking, being overweight, and not getting enough exercise. Increasing protective factors such as quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, and exercising may also help prevent some cancers. Talk to your doctor or other health care professional about how you might lower your risk of cancer.

The following risk factors may increase the risk of esophageal cancer:

Tobacco and alcohol use

Squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus is strongly linked with all types of tobacco and alcohol use. Stopping smoking can help lower the risk of this type of cancer.

Gastric reflux and Barrett esophagus

Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus is strongly linked to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is a condition in which the contents of the stomach back into the lower part of the esophagus. GERD may irritate the esophagus and, over time, cause Barrett esophagus. Barrett esophagus is a condition that affects the cells lining the lower part of the esophagus. These cells change or are replaced with abnormal cells, which can lead to adenocarcinoma of the esophagus.

It is not known if surgery or other medical treatment to stop gastric reflux lowers the risk of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus. Clinical trials are being done to see if surgery or medical treatments can prevent Barrett esophagus.

The following protective factors may decrease the risk of esophageal cancer:

Avoiding tobacco and alcohol use

Many studies have shown that the risk of esophageal cancer is lower in people who do not use tobacco and alcohol.

Diet

A diet high in green and yellow fruits and vegetables and cruciferous vegetables (such as cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower) may lower the risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

Some studies have shown that the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may lower the risk of esophageal cancer. NSAIDS include aspirin and other drugs that reduce swelling and pain. Use of NSAIDs, however, increases the risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke, bleeding in the stomach and intestines, and kidney damage.

Radiofrequency ablation

Radiofrequency ablation is being studied in clinical trials for certain patients with Barrett esophagus. This procedure uses radio waves to heat and destroy abnormal cells, which may become cancer.

Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to prevent cancer.

Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to lower the risk of certain types of cancer. Some cancer prevention trials are conducted with healthy people who have not had cancer but who have an increased risk for cancer. Other prevention trials are conducted with people who have had cancer and are trying to prevent another cancer of the same type or to lower their chance of developing a new type of cancer. Other trials are done with healthy volunteers who are not known to have any risk factors for cancer.

The purpose of some cancer prevention clinical trials is to find out whether actions people take can prevent cancer. These may include eating fruits and vegetables, exercising, quitting smoking, or taking certain medicines, vitamins, minerals, or food supplements.

New ways to prevent esophageal cancer are being studied in clinical trials.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials can be found in the Clinical Trials section of the NCI Web site. Check NCI's list of cancer clinical trials for esophageal cancer prevention trials that are now accepting patients.

Changes to This Summary (05 / 24 / 2012)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Editorial changes were made to this summary.

Questions or Comments About This Summary

If you have questions or comments about this summary, please send them to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form. We can respond only to email messages written in English.

Get More Information From NCI

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There are also many other places to get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Hospitals in your area may have information about local and regional agencies that have information on finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems related to cancer treatment.

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The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

About PDQ

PDQ is a comprehensive cancer database available on NCI's Web site.

PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.

PDQ contains cancer information summaries.

The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries are available in two versions. The health professional versions provide detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions provide current and accurate cancer information.

Images in the PDQ summaries are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in the PDQ summaries, along with many other cancer-related images, are available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.

The PDQ cancer information summaries are developed by cancer experts and reviewed regularly.

Editorial Boards made up of experts in oncology and related specialties are responsible for writing and maintaining the cancer information summaries. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made as new information becomes available. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") indicates the time of the most recent change.

PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether a certain drug or nutrient can prevent cancer. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients and those who are at risk for cancer. During prevention clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new prevention method and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new method is better than one currently being used, the new method may become "standard." People who are at high risk for a certain type of cancer may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

Last Revised: 2012-05-24


If you want to know more about cancer and how it is treated, or if you wish to know about clinical trials for your type of cancer, you can call the NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237, toll free. A trained information specialist can talk with you and answer your questions.


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