About esophageal cancer

Esophageal cancer affects the esophagus, the long tube that connects the throat and stomach. It is the sixth leading cause of cancer deaths in the world.

There are two main types of esophageal cancer:

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma is the easiest type of esophageal cancer to prevent by making lifestyle changes. It usually occurs in the upper and middle parts of the esophagus and affects thin cells on the surface of the esophagus.


Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of esophageal cancer in the United States. It usually develops in the lower third of the esophagus and is most often caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). It is becoming more common in white men than in any other population.

Meet our team

Your team of experts

At the UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center, you’ll receive care from a team that includes surgeons, cancer specialists and radiation specialists. Together, they can help monitor your risk for developing cancer, provide timely diagnosis and recommend personalized treatment.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Recognizing the signs of esophageal cancer

The exact cause of esophageal cancer is not fully understood. However, some health conditions, like GERD, can increase your esophageal cancer risk. Certain behaviors can also increase the risk for developing esophageal cancer. These include using alcohol and tobacco and maintaining an unhealthy weight.

Early signs of esophageal cancer include unexplained weight loss and painful or difficult swallowing. If you are concerned about your risk for developing esophageal cancer, don’t wait. Diagnosing cancer early can help improve treatment outcomes and the chances of achieving remission.

At the UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center, we use the following tools to diagnose esophageal cancer:

A barium swallow detects irregular shapes in your esophagus that could be cancer. You’ll drink a liquid that contains barium before receiving an X-ray scan. Barium coats your esophagus, allowing your doctor to see irregular shapes more clearly on an X-ray.

A CT scan creates more detailed images of your esophagus than X-rays. Your doctor may recommend a CT scan to confirm a diagnosis.

An esophagoscopy, or endoscopy, looks directly into your esophagus. Your doctor will insert a thin tube with a camera at the end through your mouth and down your esophagus. Before the procedure, they will give you medicine to help you relax.

Your doctor can also collect samples from your esophagus (a biopsy) to test for cancer during an esophagoscopy.

Laparoscopic staging is a minimally-invasive procedure performed while you are asleep. Your doctor inserts a camera into your abdomen to get a better look at your esophagus. They can measure the size of any suspected tumors and see if cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

With this information, your doctor can develop a more accurate treatment plan.

PET scans detect cancer by looking for areas of the esophagus that use a lot of energy. Cancer cells use more energy than healthy cells, so areas that use a lot of energy could signal cancer. Doctors also use PET scans to find cancer that has spread to other parts of the body.

The UW Carbone Cancer Center was one of the first facilities in the country to use PET scans for planning esophageal cancer treatment.


Treating esophageal cancer

Our team offers a range of treatment options to provide you with the care you need. These options include both surgical and nonsurgical treatments:

Evaluation of biomarkers such as HER2, PD-L1 and microsatellite status, in addition to sequencing of tumor DNA to look for various mutations are common in esophageal cancer. This helps us determine eligibility for targeted therapies or immunotherapies. This allows for a more personalized treatment approach.

Chemotherapy is a widely used treatment for esophageal cancer. We use it before surgery to shrink tumors, after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells or to relieve symptoms and slow disease progression in advanced cases.

The UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center is a national research center for improving cancer care. Our experts might recommend you take part in a clinical trial to access the most advanced and innovative treatments.

Find a clinical trial

An esophagectomy removes the parts of your esophagus affected by cancer. During the procedure, your doctor will also reconstruct your esophagus using parts of other organs, such as your stomach.

The UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center is one of only seven centers in the U.S. that performs minimally invasive surgery to remove the esophagus.

Immunotherapy involves stimulating the body's immune system to recognize and target cancer cells more effectively. This can be done through various methods, such as immune checkpoint inhibitors, which block proteins that inhibit immune responses, or adoptive cell transfer, where immune cells are extracted, modified and reintroduced to the body to enhance their ability to fight the cancer.

Photodynamic therapy uses light to treat cancer. Before the procedure, you will take a medication called a photosensitizing agent. Then, when exposed to laser light, the agent triggers a reaction that can destroy cancer cells.

Radiation therapy uses radiation, or energy, to destroy cancer cells and shrink a tumor. Radiation only affects the targeted area of the body.


Cancer care near you

The UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center is the only comprehensive cancer center in Wisconsin and one of the leading cancer centers in the nation. With a focus on developing new, cutting-edge treatments, the Carbone Cancer Center doctors are dedicated to providing the best cancer care possible.


Information to help you

The following resources offer more information about treatment, diagnosis and living with esophageal cancer: