Skip to Content
Home > Wellness > Health Library > Esophageal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Incidence and Mortality
Estimated new cases and deaths from esophageal cancer in the United States in 2012:
The incidence of esophageal cancer has risen in recent decades, coinciding with a shift in histologic type and primary tumor location.[2,3] Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus is now more prevalent than squamous cell carcinoma in the United States and western Europe, with most tumors located in the distal esophagus. The cause for the rising incidence and demographic alterations is unknown.
While risk factors for squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus have been identified (e.g., tobacco, alcohol, diet), the risk factors associated with esophageal adenocarcinoma are less clear. The presence of Barrett esophagus is associated with an increased risk of developing adenocarcinoma of the esophagus, and chronic reflux is considered the predominant cause of Barrett metaplasia. The results of a population-based, case-controlled study from Sweden strongly suggest that symptomatic gastroesophageal reflux is a risk factor for esophageal adenocarcinoma. The frequency, severity, and duration of reflux symptoms were positively correlated with increased risk of esophageal adenocarcinoma.
Esophageal cancer is a treatable disease, but it is rarely curable. The overall 5-year survival rate in patients amenable to definitive treatment ranges from 5% to 30%. The occasional patient with very early disease has a better chance of survival. Patients with severe dysplasia in distal esophageal Barrett mucosa often have in situ or even invasive cancer within the dysplastic area. Following resection, these patients usually have excellent prognoses.
Primary treatment modalities include surgery alone or chemotherapy with radiation therapy. Combined modality therapy (i.e., chemotherapy plus surgery, or chemotherapy and radiation therapy plus surgery) is under clinical evaluation. Effective palliation may be obtained in individual cases with various combinations of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, stents, photodynamic therapy,[6,7,8] and endoscopic therapy with Nd:YAG laser.
One of the major difficulties in allocating and comparing treatment modalities for patients with esophageal cancer is the lack of precise preoperative staging. Standard noninvasive staging modalities include computed tomography (CT) of the chest and abdomen and endoscopic ultrasound (EUS). The overall tumor depth staging accuracy of EUS is 85% to 90%, as compared with 50% to 80% for CT; the accuracy of regional nodal staging is 70% to 80% for EUS and 50% to 70% for CT.[10,11] EUS-guided fine-needle aspiration (FNA) for lymph node staging is under prospective evaluation; one retrospective series reported a 93% sensitivity and 100% specificity of regional nodal staging with EUS-FNA. Thoracoscopy and laparoscopy have been used in esophageal cancer staging at some surgical centers.[13,14,15] An intergroup trial reported an increase in positive lymph node detection to 56% of 107 evaluable patients using thoracoscopy/laparoscopy, from 41% (using noninvasive staging tests, e.g., CT, magnetic resonance imaging, EUS) with no major complications or deaths. Noninvasive positron emission tomography using the radiolabeled glucose analog 18-F-fluorodeoxy-D-glucose for preoperative staging of esophageal cancer is under clinical evaluation and may be useful in detecting stage IV disease.[17,18,19,20]
Gastrointestinal stromal tumors can occur in the esophagus and are usually benign. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors Treatment for more information.)
Other PDQ summaries containing information related to esophageal cancer include the following:
Fewer than 50% of esophageal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Adenocarcinomas, typically arising in Barrett esophagus, account for at least 50% of malignant lesions, and the incidence of this histology appears to be rising. Barrett esophagus contains glandular epithelium cephalad to the esophagogastric junction.
Three different types of glandular epithelium can be seen:
Dysplasia is particularly likely to develop in the intestinal type mucosa.
The stage determines whether the intent of the therapeutic approach will be curative or palliative. The AJCC has designated staging by TNM classification to define cancer of the esophagus and esophagogastric junction.
Definitions of TNM
The AJCC has designated staging by TNM classification to define cancer of the esophagus and esophagogastric junction.
The current staging system for esophageal cancer is based largely on retrospective data from the Japanese Committee for Registration of Esophageal Carcinoma. It is most applicable to patients with squamous cell carcinomas of the upper third and middle third of the esophagus, as opposed to the increasingly common distal esophageal and gastroesophageal junction adenocarcinomas. In particular, the classification of involved abdominal lymph nodes as M1 disease has been criticized. The presence of positive abdominal lymph nodes does not appear to carry as grave a prognosis as metastases to distant organs. Patients with regional and/or celiac axis lymphadenopathy should not necessarily be considered to have unresectable disease caused by metastases. Complete resection of the primary tumor and appropriate lymphadenectomy should be attempted when possible.
The prevalence of Barrett metaplasia in adenocarcinoma of the esophagus suggests that Barrett esophagus is a premalignant condition. Strong consideration should be given to resection in patients with high-grade dysplasia in the setting of Barrett metaplasia. Endoscopic surveillance of patients with Barrett metaplasia may detect adenocarcinoma at an earlier stage more amenable to curative resection. The survival rate of patients with esophageal cancer is poor. Asymptomatic small tumors confined to the esophageal mucosa or submucosa are detected only by chance. Surgery is the treatment of choice for these small tumors. Once symptoms are present (e.g., dysphagia, in most cases), esophageal cancers have usually invaded the muscularis propria or beyond and may have metastasized to lymph nodes or other organs.
In the presence of complete esophageal obstruction without clinical evidence of systemic metastasis, surgical excision of the tumor with mobilization of the stomach to replace the esophagus has been the traditional means of relieving the dysphagia. In the United States, the median age of patients who present with esophageal cancer is 67 years. The results of a retrospective review of 505 consecutive patients who were operated on by a single surgical team over 17 years found no difference in the perioperative mortality, median survival, or palliative benefit of esophagectomy on dysphagia when the group of patients older than 70 years were compared to their younger peers.[Level of evidence: 3iiA, 3iiB] All of the patients in this series were selected for surgery on the basis of potential operative risk. Age alone should not determine therapy for patients with potentially resectable disease.
The optimal surgical procedure is controversial. One approach advocates transhiatal esophagectomy with anastomosis of the stomach to the cervical esophagus. A second approach advocates abdominal mobilization of the stomach and transthoracic excision of the esophagus with anastomosis of the stomach to the upper thoracic esophagus or the cervical esophagus. One study concluded that transhiatal esophagectomy was associated with lower morbidity than transthoracic esophagectomy with extended en bloc lymphadenectomy; however, median overall disease-free and quality-adjusted survival did not differ significantly. Similarly, no differences in long-term quality of life (QOL) using validated QOL instruments have been reported. In patients with partial esophageal obstruction, dysphagia may, at times, be relieved by placement of an expandable metallic stent  or by radiation therapy if the patient has disseminated disease or is not a candidate for surgery. Alternative methods of relieving dysphagia have been reported, including laser therapy and electrocoagulation to destroy intraluminal tumor.[7,8,9,10]
Surgical treatment of resectable esophageal cancers results in 5-year survival rates of 5% to 30%, with higher survival rates in patients with early-stage cancers. This is associated with a less than 10% operative mortality rate. In an attempt to avoid this perioperative mortality and to relieve dysphagia, definitive radiation therapy in combination with chemotherapy has been studied. A Radiation Therapy Oncology Group randomized trial (RTOG-8501) of chemotherapy and radiation therapy versus radiation therapy alone resulted in an improvement in 5-year survival for the combined modality group (27% vs. 0%).[Level of evidence: 1iiA] An eight-year follow-up of this trial demonstrated an overall survival (OS) rate of 22% for patients receiving chemoradiation therapy. An Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group trial (EST-1282) of 135 patients showed that chemotherapy plus radiation provided a better 2-year survival rate than radiation therapy alone, which was similar to that shown in the Intergroup trial.[Level of evidence: 1iiA] In an attempt to improve upon the results of RTOG-8501, Intergroup-0123 (RTOG-9405) randomly assigned 236 patients with localized esophageal tumors to chemoradiation with high-dose radiation therapy (64.8 Gy) and four monthly cycles of fluorouracil (5-FU) and cisplatin versus conventional-dose radiation therapy (50.4 Gy) and the same chemotherapy schedule. Although originally designed to accrue 298 patients, this trial was closed in 1999 after a planned interim analysis showed that it was statistically unlikely that there would be any advantage to using high-dose radiation. At 2 years' median follow-up, no statistical differences were observed between the high-dose and conventional-dose radiation therapy arms in median survival (13 months vs. 18 months), 2-year survival (31% vs. 40%), or local/regional failures (56% vs. 52%).[Level of evidence: 1iiA]
Preoperative Chemoradiation Therapy
Chemoradiation followed by surgery is a standard treatment option for patients with stages IB, II, III, and IVA esophageal cancer, based on the results of several randomized trials.
The CROSS (NCT01498289) study randomly assigned 366 patients with resectable esophageal or junctional cancers to receive either surgery alone or weekly administration of carboplatin (dose titrated to achieve an AUC [area under the curve] of 2 mg/mL/minute) and paclitaxel (50 mg/m2 of BSA [body surface area]) and concurrent radiation therapy (41.4 Gy in 23 fractions) administered over 5 weeks.[Level of evidence: 1iiA] The majority of the patients enrolled in the study had adenocarcinoma (75%).
With a median follow-up of 45 months, preoperative chemoradiation was found to improve median OS from 24 months in the surgery-alone group to 49.4 months (hazard ratio [HR], 0.657; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.495–0.871, P = .003). Additionally, preoperative chemoradiation improved the rate of R0 resections (R0 is defined as complete resection with no tumor within 1 mm of resection margins, 92% vs. 69%, P < .001). A complete pathologic response was achieved in 29% of patients who underwent resection after chemoradiation therapy. Postoperative complications and in-hospital mortality were equivalent in both groups. The most common hematologic side effects in the chemoradiation group were leukopenia (6%) and neutropenia (2%). The most common nonhematologic side effects were anorexia (5%) and fatigue (3%).
Other phase III trials have compared preoperative concurrent chemoradiation therapy to surgery alone for patients with esophageal cancer.[15,16,17,18,19][Level of evidence: 1iiA] A multicenter prospective randomized trial in which preoperative combined chemotherapy (i.e., cisplatin) and radiation therapy (37 Gy in 3.7 Gy fractions) followed by surgery was compared to surgery alone in patients with squamous cell carcinoma showed no improvement in OS and a significantly higher postoperative mortality (12% vs. 4%) in the combined modality arm. In patients with adenocarcinoma of the esophagus, a single-institution phase III trial demonstrated a modest survival benefit (16 months vs. 11 months) for patients treated with induction chemoradiation therapy consisting of 5-FU, cisplatin, and 40 Gy (2.67 Gy fractions) plus surgery over resection alone. A subsequent single-institution trial randomly assigned patients (75% with adenocarcinoma) to 5-FU, cisplatin, vinblastine, and radiation therapy (1.5 Gy twice daily to a total of 45 Gy) plus resection versus esophagectomy alone. At a median follow-up of more than 8 years, there was no significant difference between the surgery alone and combined modality therapy with respect to median survival (17.6 months vs. 16.9 months), OS (16% vs. 30% at 3 years), or disease-free survival (16% vs. 28% at 3 years). An Intergroup trial (CALGB-9781) planned to randomly assign 475 patients with resectable squamous cell or adenocarcinoma of the thoracic esophagus to treatment with preoperative chemoradiation therapy (5-FU, cisplatin, and 50.4 Gy) followed by esophagectomy and nodal dissection or surgery alone.[Level of evidence: 1iiA] The trial was closed as a result of poor patient accrual; however, the results of the 56 enrolled patients, with a median follow-up of 6 years, were reported. The median survival was 4.48 years (95% CI, 2.4 years to not estimable) for trimodality therapy versus 1.79 years (95% CI, 1.41–2.59 years) for surgery alone (P = .002), with 5-year OS of 39% (95% CI, 21%–57%) versus 16% (95% CI, 5%–33%) for trimodality therapy versus surgery alone.
A phase III German trial also compared induction chemotherapy (three courses of bolus 5-FU, leucovorin, etoposide, and cisplatin) followed by chemoradiation therapy (cisplatin, etoposide, and 40 Gy) followed by surgery (arm A), or the same induction chemotherapy followed by chemoradiation therapy (at least 65 Gy) without surgery (arm B) for patients with T3 or T4 squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus.[Level of evidence: 1iiA] OS was the primary outcome. The analysis of 172 eligible, randomly assigned patients showed that OS at 2 years was not statistically significantly different between the two treatment groups (arm A: 39.9%; 95% CI, 29.4%–50.4%; arm B: 35.4%; 95% CI, 25.2%–45.6%; log-rank test for equivalence with 0.15, P < .007). Local progression-free survival (PFS) was higher in the surgery group (2-year PFS, 64.3%; 95% CI, 52.1%–76.5%) than in the chemoradiation therapy group (2-year PFS, 40.7%; 95% CI, 28.9%–52.5%; HR for arm B vs. arm A, 2.1; 95% CI, 1.3–3.5; P < .003). Treatment-related mortality was higher in the surgery group compared with the chemoradiation therapy group (12.8% vs. 3.5%, respectively; P < .03).
Preoperative Chemotherapy Alone
The effects of preoperative chemotherapy are being evaluated in randomized trials, as was done in the NCT00525785 trial.[21,22][Level of evidence: 1iiA]. An Intergroup trial randomly assigned 440 patients with local and operable esophageal cancer of any cell type to three cycles of preoperative 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) and cisplatin followed by surgery and two additional cycles of chemotherapy versus surgery alone. After a median follow-up of 55 months, there were no significant differences between the chemotherapy/surgery and surgery-alone groups in median survival (14.9 months and 16.1 months, respectively) or 2-year survival (35% and 37%, respectively). The addition of chemotherapy did not increase the morbidity associated with surgery. The Medical Research Council Oesophageal Cancer Working Party randomly assigned 802 patients with resectable esophageal cancer also of any cell type to two cycles of preoperative 5-FU and cisplatin followed by surgery versus surgery alone. At a median follow-up of 37 months, median survival was significantly improved in the preoperative chemotherapy arm (16.8 months vs. 13.3 months with surgery alone; difference 3.5 months; 95% CI, 1–6.5 months), as was 2-year OS (43% and 34% respectively; difference 9%; 95% CI, 3–14 months). The interpretation of the results from both of these trials is challenging because T or N staging was not reported and prerandomization and radiation could be offered at the discretion of the treating oncologist.
The Japanese Clinical Oncology Group randomly assigned 330 patients with clinical stage II or III, excluding T4, squamous cell carcinomas to receive either two cycles of preoperative cisplatin and 5-FU (fluouracil) followed by surgery versus surgery followed by postoperative chemotherapy of the same regimen.[Level of evidence: 1iiC] A planned interim analysis was conducted after patient accrual, and although the primary endpoint of PFS was not met, there was a significant benefit in OS among patients treated with preoperative chemotherapy (P = .01). As a result of these findings, the Data and Safety Monitoring Committee recommended early publication.
With a median follow-up of 61 months, the 5-year OS was 55% among patients treated with preoperative chemotherapy compared with 43% among patients treated with postoperative chemotherapy (P = .04). However, there was no significant difference between groups with respect to PFS (5-year PFS, 39% vs. 44%; P = .22). Additionally, there were no significant differences between the two groups with respect to postoperative complications or treatment-related toxicities. Based on these results, preoperative chemotherapy without radiation therapy should still be considered under clinical evaluation.
Two randomized trials have shown no significant OS benefit for postoperative radiation therapy over surgery alone.[24,25][Level of evidence: 1iiA] All newly diagnosed patients should be considered candidates for therapies and clinical trials comparing various treatment modalities.
Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Special attention to nutritional support is indicated in any patient undergoing treatment of esophageal cancer. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Nutrition in Cancer Care for more information.)
Stage 0 squamous esophageal cancer is rarely seen in the United States, but surgery has been used for this stage of cancer.[1,2]
Current Clinical Trials
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage 0 esophageal cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI Web site.
Standard treatment options:
Treatment options under clinical evaluation:
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage I esophageal cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
Standard treatment options:
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage II esophageal cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage III esophageal cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
At diagnosis, approximately 50% of patients with esophageal cancer will have metastatic disease and will be candidates for palliative therapy.
Many agents are active in esophageal cancer. Objective response rates of 30% to 60% and median survivals of less than 1 year are commonly reported with platinum-based combination regimens with fluorouracil, taxanes, topoisomerase inhibitors, hydroxyurea, or vinorelbine.[1,8,9]
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage IV esophageal cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
All recurrent esophageal cancer patients present difficult problems in palliation. All patients, whenever possible, should be considered candidates for clinical trials as outlined in treatment overview.
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent esophageal cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Treatment Option Overview
Added text to state that chemoradiation followed by surgery is a standard treatment option for patients with stages IB, II, III, and IVA esophageal cancer.
Added text to state that the CROSS study randomly assigned patients with resectable esophageal or junctional cancers to receive either surgery alone or weekly administration of carboplatin and paclitaxel and concurrent radiation therapy administered over 5 weeks (cited Van Hagen et al. as reference 15 and level of evidence 1iiA).
Added text to state that the Japanese Clinical Oncology Group randomly assigned patients with clinical stage II or III, excluding T4, squamous cell carcinomas to receive either two cycles of preoperative cisplatin and 5-FU (fluouracil) followed by surgery versus surgery followed by postoperative chemotherapy of the same regimen (cited Ando et al. as reference 23 and level of evidence 1iiC).
Added text to state that with a median follow-up of 61 months, the 5-year OS was 55% among patients treated with preoperative chemotherapy compared with 43% among patients treated with postoperative chemotherapy; there was no significant difference between groups with respect to progression-free survival nor were there significant differences between the two groups with respect to postoperative complications or treatment-related toxicities; therefore, preoperative chemotherapy without radiation therapy should still be considered under clinical evaluation.
Stage I Esophageal Cancer
Revised text to include chemoradiation with subsequent surgery as a standard treatment option.
Stage II Esophageal Cancer
Revised text to include chemoradiation with subsequent surgery, chemoradiation, and surgery alone as standard treatment options.
Stage III Esophageal Cancer
Stage IV Esophageal Cancer
Revised text to include chemoradiation with subsequent surgery (for patients with stage IVA disease) as a standard treatment option.
This summary is written and maintained by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of NCI. The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or NIH. More information about summary policies and the role of the PDQ Editorial Boards in maintaining the PDQ summaries can be found on the About This PDQ Summary and PDQ NCI's Comprehensive Cancer Database pages.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of esophageal cancer. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
Reviewers and Updates
This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:
Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.
The lead reviewers for Esophageal Cancer Treatment are:
Any comments or questions about the summary content should be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form. Do not contact the individual Board Members with questions or comments about the summaries. Board members will not respond to individual inquiries.
Levels of Evidence
Some of the reference citations in this summary are accompanied by a level-of-evidence designation. These designations are intended to help readers assess the strength of the evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. The PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board uses a formal evidence ranking system in developing its level-of-evidence designations.
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. Although the content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text, it cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless it is presented in its entirety and is regularly updated. However, an author would be permitted to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks succinctly: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The preferred citation for this PDQ summary is:
National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Esophageal Cancer Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/esophageal/HealthProfessional. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in this summary, along with many other cancer-related images, is available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.
Based on the strength of the available evidence, treatment options may be described as either "standard" or "under clinical evaluation." These classifications should not be used as a basis for insurance reimbursement determinations. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Coping with Cancer: Financial, Insurance, and Legal Information page.
More information about contacting us or receiving help with the Cancer.gov Web site can be found on our Contact Us for Help page. Questions can also be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form.
For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Eastern Time. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.
The NCI's LiveHelp® online chat service provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.
Write to us
For more information from the NCI, please write to this address:
Search the NCI Web site
The NCI Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. For a quick search, use the search box in the upper right corner of each Web page. The results for a wide range of search terms will include a list of "Best Bets," editorially chosen Web pages that are most closely related to the search term entered.
There are also many other places to get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Hospitals in your area may have information about local and regional agencies that have information on finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems related to cancer treatment.
The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Last Revised: 2012-10-26
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.
Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
250 Pleasant Street
Concord, NH 03301
Contact Concord Hospital
View Quality Data
© 2013 Concord Hospital