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What is Esophageal Cancer?

Esophageal cancer is a relatively rare cancer in the United States, with approximately 12,000 new cases diagnosed each year. Because it is often not diagnosed until it has spread, it is a serious cancer that demands immediate and expert treatment to give patients the best possible prognosis and quality of life. 

There are two types of esophageal cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma, which occurs in the squamous cells (the columnar cells that line the esophageal lumen), may occur anywhere along the length of the esophagus.
  • Adenocarcinoma generally occurs just above the esophagosgastric junction.


Generally, people with early stage esophageal cancer do not have any symptoms or may present with symptoms such as heartburn, chest pain, or indigestion, general conditions that may or may not send a patient to the doctor. In some patients, more serious symptoms occur, such as blood in the stool or anemia.

Most commonly, patients report feeling that there is an obstruction in their throats that makes swallowing difficult (sometimes called dysphagia) or makes them feel as if food lodges in their throats. They often first notice an inability to swallow solids, followed by ground food, and finally liquid.

Some patients are diagnosed with a pre-cancerous condition known as Barrett’s esophagus, in which the distal esophagus is covered by columnar (lining of the stomach) rather than squamous epithelial cells (normal lining of the esophagus). This occurs when the esophageal lining is damaged by stomach acid. Patients with Barrett’s esophagus are monitored frequently to ensure that cancer is caught as early as possible. Johns Hopkins Department of Pathology provides more information about Barrett’s esophagus.

Our Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology provides detailed information on esophageal cancer.

Same-day consultations with esophageal experts

If you or someone you know has esophageal cancer or symptoms, the Johns Hopkins Esophageal Cancer Program offers diagnosis as well as a multi-disciplinary clinic for patients already diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

Patients can call in and talk to an esophageal cancer care coordinator who can provide them with more information about the Esophageal Cancer Program and its multi-disciplinary clinic, and answer questions about diagnosis and appointments.

To make an appointment or if you have questions, call 410-933-5420.

For more information

Find out more about how Johns Hopkins doctors treat esophageal cancer:

Read the FAQ about esophageal cancer and its treatment.