Risk Factors

Esophageal Cancer Risk Factors

While researchers are actively trying to understand the precise causes of esophageal cancer, studies have identified several risk factors.

  • Men are nearly three times more likely than women to develop esophageal cancer.
  • The disease is three times more common among African Americans than European Americans.
  • The rate of esophageal cancer rises after age 50.
  • Using tobacco and drinking alcohol increase the risk of developing cancer, especially squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Obesity is linked with adenocarcinoma because it is linked with gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), which can damage the esophagus.
  • Barrett’s esophagus, a condition linked with long-term GERD, occurs when cells in the esophagus change and become more like those in the stomach and intestine. Barrett’s is a major warning sign that adenocarcinoma may develop.
  • People who have had head or neck cancers or who are infected with human papillomavirus are at greater risk of developing esophageal cancer.
  • Injury to the esophagus, which can cause scarring and damage cells in the area, is linked with higher risk of esophageal cancer.

Barrett’s Esophagus

When acid from the stomach repeatedly comes up into the esophagus—as it does in people with GERD—the acid may damage the cells of the esophageal lining. Over time this damage can cause the cells to mutate, leading to a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. In a small fraction of people with Barrett’s esophagus, the mutated cells turn into cancer (esophageal adenocarcinoma).

Several options, including lifestyle changes, medication, radiofrequency ablation and surgery, are available to control reflux and to prevent or treat the problems that can develop as a result of reflux. Read more about Barrett’s esophagus and treatment options for this condition on the UW Medicine Center for Esophageal & Gastric Surgery website.