esophageal carcinoma

Esophageal carcinoma is relatively uncommon. It tends to present with increasing dysphagia, initially to solids and progressing to liquids as the tumor increases in size, obstructing the lumen of the esophagus.


Esophageal cancer is responsible for <1% of all cancers and 4-10% of all gastrointestinal malignancies. There is recognized male preponderance with the squamous cell subtype, M:F 4:1. Blacks are more susceptible than Caucasians, 2:1.

The incidence of the subtypes has regional variation. The squamous cell subtype has the greatest worldwide incidence (~90%), but the adenocarcinoma subtype is more common in many parts of North America and Europe. In addition, there are certain regions where individuals are at particularly high risk of developing esophageal cancer, e.g. Iran, parts of Africa, Italy, and China.

Predisposing factors include :

  • alcohol and smoking: for squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma
  • achalasia
  • asbestosis
  • Barrett esophagus: for adenocarcinoma
  • celiac disease
  • ionizing radiation
  • caustic stricture/lye stricture
  • Plummer-Vinson syndrome
  • obesity: for adenocarcinoma
  • history of oral or pharyngeal cancer
  • human papilloma virus (HPV)
  • tylosis (Howel–Evans syndrome): rare AD disease with hyperkeratosis of palm and sole with a high incidence of esophageal cancer

Clinical presentation

Patients present with progressive dysphagia, weight loss, chronic worsening gastroesophageal reflux and hoarseness, cough, vocal cord paralysis, or other signs and symptoms of mediastinal invasion.


Histological types

* in western world adenocarcinoma is as common or even slightly more common than squamous cell carcinoma

Macroscopic appearance
  • polypoid/fungating (most common)
    • sessile/pedunculated tumor
    • lobulated surface protruding
    • irregular, polycyclic, overhanging, step-like "apple core" lesion
  • ulcerating: large ulcer niche within a bulging mass
  • infiltrating: gradual narrowing with a smooth transition
  • superficial spreading carcinoma

See the separate articles by histology:

  • lymphatic
    • anterior jugular chain and supraclavicular nodes (primary in upper 1/3)
    • para-esophageal and subdiaphragmatic nodes (primary in middle 1/3)
    • mediastinal and paracardial and celiac trunk nodes (primary in lower 1/3)
  • haematogenous: lung, liver, adrenal glands

Radiographic features

A combination of CT scan, transesophageal ultrasound, and PET/CT scan are used for staging of the disease. CT is the best initial modality for detection of the distant metastasis, gross direct invasion, and enlarged lymph nodes. Ultrasound is the most sensitive modality for assessment of the depth of invasion and regional enlarged lymph nodes. PET can be useful for re-staging after the initial neoadjuvant therapy .

Chest radiograph

Many indirect signs can be sought on a chest radiograph and these include:

Fluoroscopy/Barium Swallow
  • irregular stricture
  • pre-stricture dilatation with 'hold up'
  • shouldering of the stricture
Endoscopic US

It is the most accurate imaging modality for the T staging of esophageal cancer

It defines the layers of the esophageal wall hence can differentiate T1, T2, and T3 tumors

The esophagus consists of five layers.

  • the first hyperechoic layer represents the interface between the balloon and the superficial mucosa.
  •  the second hypoechoic layer represents the lamina propria and muscularis mucosae.
  •  the third hyperechoic layer represents the submucosa
  •  the fourth hypoechoic layer represents the muscularis propria
  • the fifth layer represents the interface between the adventitia and surrounding tissues
  • eccentric or circumferential wall thickening >5 mm
  • peri-esophageal soft tissue and fat stranding
  • dilated fluid- and debris-filled esophageal lumen is proximal to an obstructing lesion
  • tracheobronchial invasion appears as a displacement of the airway (usually the trachea or left mainstem bronchus) as a result of mass effect by the esophageal tumor
  • aortic invasion

PET/CT is useful for detecting esophageal primary tumors yet it has little role in helping determine the specific T classification because it provides limited information about the depth of tumor invasion.

PET/CT is also superior to CT for detecting lymph node metastases and can depict metastases in normal-sized lymph nodes through the uptake of FDG.

PET/CT has a primary role in the depiction of distant sites of metastatic disease.

The most common sites of distant metastases detected at PET (but frequently missed at CT) are the bones and liver.

Treatment and prognosis

The 5-year mortality depends on the stage of the tumor. Unfortunately, most cases present with regional or distant metastatic disease (30% and 40%, respectively.

  • localized disease: ~40% 5-year survival
  • distant metastatic disease: ~5% 5-year survival

Endoscopic mucosal resection, without or with localized ablation is an option for localized (T1a) disease. These epithelial tumors are usually <2 cm, asymptomatic, and noncircumferential.

For T1b tumors and above, surgical options are mostly limited to esophagectomy (including sometimes with palliative colonic interposition (see case 19)).

  • fistula formation to the trachea (5-10%), bronchi or mediastinum: can be either due to direct tumor progression or iatrogenic effects (e.g. radiation therapy) 
  • esophageal perforation

Differential diagnosis

Imaging differential considerations include:

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