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Help and advice on quitting smoking

Esophageal cancer

Esophageal cancer may assume various forms depending on the cells that make up the tumor. This relatively rare cancer affects around 400 people every year in Switzerland, the majority of of whom are over 50 years old. Advanced esophageal cancer causes the esophagus to contract, leading to blockages, a burning pain behind the sternum, and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing).


When tobacco is burned, it can reach temperatures as high as 850°C. The hot smoke that smokers inhale irritates and gradually alters the mucous lining of the esophagus. The risk is higher for people who smoke pipes rather than cigarettes.

Esophageal cancer can occur anywhere along the esophagus. There are two main types:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma, arising from the cells that line the inside of the esophagus
  • Adenocarcinoma, arising from the glandular cells in the bottom third of the esophagus or from cells irritated by gastric acid reflux from the stomach


  • Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)
  • Pain in the sternum or upper back
  • Pressure or burning in the chest or throat
  • Vomiting or aspiration from food
  • Decline in general health; weight loss
  • Expectorations/coughing up mucous
  • Vomiting blood


Upper digestive tract endoscopy: a specialist introduces a thin tube into the esophagus in order to view the tumor. Next, a biopsy (analysis of a swab of tissue) is performed. Scans are also carried out.


  • Surgical intervention (removal of part of all of the tumor and some surrounding tissue)
  • Radiotherapy (destruction of the cancerous cells by high-power X-rays)
  • Chemotherapy (drugs which inhibit the development and spread of cancerous cells). Chemotherapy may be prescribed with or instead of radiotherapy.

Causes of esophageal cancer

Esophageal cancer does not have one unique cause, but certain factors can increase a person’s chances of being affected. These include:

  • Smoking, particularly if accompanied by alcohol abuse
  • Damage to the cells that line the inside of the esophagus, such as that caused by acid reflux over a number of years (Barrett’s esophagus).

It is thought that the following factors may also predispose a person to esophageal cancer:

  • Frequent consumption of smoked foods
  • Frequent consumption of very hot drinks
  • Obesity

Esophageal cancer may sometimes arise without any of these risk factors being present.


The prognosis depends on the type of tumor and its location as well as how early the cancer is diagnosed.


The prevalence of esophageal cancer is relatively low since it represents 1.8% of all adult cancers (2.4% for men and 1.1% for women). The incidence of this disease in Switzerland is 10 per 100 000, i.e. around 450 new cases every year.

Esophageal cancer accounts for 2.2% of all deaths caused by cancer (3.3% for men and 1.3% for women). In Geneva, Switzerland, it is the 17th highest cause of death from cancer for women and the 11th highest cause for men.

This type of cancer especially affects men aged over 60. The incidence of esophageal cancer is much higher in China and other Asian countries. This can be explained by the higher risk diet consumed by the populations of these countries, which affords less protection against the disease.

Find out more

  • Ligue suisse contre le cancer
  • Ligue nationale contre le cancer (France)
  • Belgian cancer foundation:
  • Eat healthily to reduce your risk of cancer: document PDF


  • Dossier cancer oesophage. Authors: J.M. Simon, J.J. Duron, C. Hoang, CHU PS, 2002-2003.