Cancer of the oesophagus, also known as gullet cancer, is a serious type of cancer that affects the oesophagus (gullet).

The oesophagus is the medical name for the gullet, which is part of the digestive system. The oesophagus is the long tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach. The top part of the oesophagus lies behind the windpipe (trachea). The bottom part runs down through the chest between the spine and the heart.

Symptoms of oesophageal cancer can include:

  • difficulties swallowing (dysphagia)
  • weight loss
  • pain in your throat or behind your breast bone
  • persistent cough
  • black stools
  • vomiting blood or black fluid

There are two main types of oesophageal cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma usually occurs in the upper part of the oesophagus. It happens when cells on the inside lining of the oesophagus multiply abnormally
  • Adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus usually forms in the lower part of the oesophagus or at the junction of the point where the oesophagus meets the stomach (gastroesophageal junction or GOJ). It occurs when cells inside the mucous glands that line the oesophagus multiply abnormally.

The exact causes of oesophageal cancer are not known. It appears to be more common in people who have long-term acid reflux (backflow of stomach acid into the oesophagus). This can occur when people have conditions such as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD).

Damage to the oesophagus caused by acid reflux can lead to a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus. In this condition, abnormal cells develop in the lining of the lower end of the oesophagus. It’s not a cancer, but a small number of people (around 1 in 200) with Barrett’s oesophagus may go on to develop cancer.