Esophageal Cancer: Facts & Figures

Incidence in Minnesota:

Esophageal cancer incidence rates in Minnesotans increased from 1988 to 2005. Since 2005, rates have declined by 1.4% per year. From 1988 to 2005, incidence rates for males increased by about 2.8% per  year, then declined after 2005 by 2.8% per year. Rates among females were considerably lower, but increased significantly by about 1.5% per  year.

From 2010 to 2012, approximately 215 new cases of esophageal cancer in males and 72 new cases in females were diagnosed in Minnesota residents each year. Long term survival for this cancer, while improving, is still poor.

Incidence in Minnesota by year

Age-adjusted rate of new esophageal cancer cases.
Age-adjusted rate of new esophageal cancer cases.

Since 1988, incidence rates for males increased significantly by about 1% per year; rates among females were considerably lower, but increased significantly by about 2% per year. The rate of esophageal cancer is currently three times higher among males than females. Most recently, the age-adjusted incidence rate of esophageal cancer was 8.5 new cases per 100,000 males and 2.7 new cases per 100,000 females.

Incidence in Minnesota by age

Rates of new esophageal cancer cases, aggregated from 2003 to 2012.
Rates of new esophageal cancer cases, aggregated from 2003 to 2012.

The rate of esophageal cancer increases with age for both sexes. The rate of esophageal cancer is highest among males aged 80 years and older.

What is esophageal cancer?

Cancer that begins in the esophagus is called esophageal cancer. The esophagus is the muscular tube in the body that carries food, liquids and saliva from your mouth to your stomach. There are two main types of esophageal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma which starts in the squamous cells that line the entire esophagus, and adenocarcinoma which usually starts in the glandular cells that occur in the lower part of the esophagus near the entrance to the stomach.

What are risk factors for esophageal cancer?

Chronic irritation of the esophagus (i.e., through smoking, drinking alcohol, or acid reflux) increases the risk of esophageal cancer.

  • Tobacco use and alcohol abuse irritate the squamous cells of the esophagus and increase the risk for esophageal cancer. The use of any tobacco product, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and chewing tobacco, increases the risk for esophageal cancer, especially with heavy or prolonged use.
  • Diet: Consumption of foods preserved in lye (such as lutefisk) can increase a person's risk for esophageal cancer, especially if consumed in large quantities. Eating few fruits and vegetables is associated with an increased risk of esophageal cancer. However, more research is needed to know whether there is a protective effect of fruits and vegetables or whether it is simply a marker for another risk factor.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also known as reflux, acid indigestion, and heartburn, occurs when acid escapes from the stomach back into the esophagus. This chronic reflux has been shown to increase the risk of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus. The long-term damage caused to the cells of the esophagus from strong stomach acids can cause a condition known as Barrett's esophagus, which greatly increases risk of esophageal cancer.
  • Obesity is associated with esophageal cancer, probably because obese individuals are more likely to have GERD.
  • Long-term exposure to chemical fumes in certain work settings such as dry cleaning appears to increase the risk of esophageal cancer.

How can esophageal cancer be prevented?

Avoid tobacco products (including smokeless tobacco products) and alcohol.  If you do drink alcohol, drink in moderation. People who drink heavily (more than three alcoholic drinks each day) are more likely to develop esophageal cancer. Maintain a healthy weight and choose a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.  If you have chronic heartburn (reflux), see a physician for proper treatment and follow-up, as stomach acid can damage the esophagus.