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The esophagus is a 10-inch long, hollow, muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach. It is part of a person's gastrointestinal (GI) tract. When a person swallows, the walls of the esophagus contract to push food down into the stomach.
Cancer begins when normal cells begin to change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body). Esophageal cancer, also called esophagus cancer, begins when cells in the lining of the esophagus grow uncontrollably and eventually form a tumor.
Specifically, cancer of the esophagus begins in the inner layer of the esophageal wall and grows outward. If it spreads through the esophageal wall, it can invade lymph nodes, blood vessels in the chest, and other nearby organs. Esophageal cancer can also spread to the lungs, liver, stomach, and other parts of the body.
There are two major types of esophageal cancer:
- Squamous cell carcinoma. This type of esophageal cancer arises in squamous cells that line the esophagus. This type of cancer usually develops in the upper and middle part of the esophagus.
- Adenocarcinoma. This type begins in the glandular tissue in the lower part of the esophagus at the junction between the esophagus and the stomach.
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In 2009, an estimated 16,470 adults (12,940 men and 3,530 women) in the United States will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer. It is estimated that 14,530 deaths (11,490 men and 3,040 women) from this disease will occur this year. Esophageal cancer is the seventh most common cause of cancer death among men.
The five-year relative survival rate (percentage of people who survive at least five years after the cancer is detected, excluding those who die from other diseases) of people with esophageal cancer is about 16%.
Cancer survival statistics should be interpreted with caution. These estimates are based on data from thousands of cases of this type of cancer in the United States each year, but the actual risk for a particular individual may differ. It is not possible to tell a person how long he or she will live with esophageal cancer. Because the survival statistics are measured in five-year intervals, they may not represent advances made in the treatment or diagnosis of this cancer. These statistics also combine the survival rates of people with advanced esophageal cancer that has spread and people with cancer that is located only in the esophagus. People with cancer that has not metastasized (spread) are likely to have a higher survival rate compared with those with more advanced disease.
Statistics adapted from the American Cancer Society's publication, Cancer Facts & Figures 2009.
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