Reducing your risk of oesophageal cancer

Can oesophageal cancer be prevented?

Oesophageal cancer is becoming more common in the UK. In 2013, 8,779 cases of oesophageal cancer were diagnosed.

Scientists estimate that we could prevent most cases of oesophageal cancer in the UK by not smoking and making other healthy lifestyle choices.

What is oesophageal cancer?

The oesophagus is also known as the gullet or foodpipe. It’s a tube that carries food and drink from your throat to your stomach. It’s found between the windpipe and the spine.

In an adult, the oesophagus is roughly 25-30cm (10-12 inches) long and cancer can develop anywhere along its length.

There are two main types of oesophageal cancer:

  • squamous cell carcinoma ­– found in the cells that line the upper part of the oesophagus and makes up about a third of cases of oesophageal cancer in the UK.
  • adenocarcinoma – develops in cells that make mucus and other fluids in the lower part of the oesophagus. The number of cases of adenocarcinoma has increased in the last 20 years and they make up about two thirds of cases of oesophageal cancer in the UK.

There are lots of different reasons why oesophageal cancer develops – some of the most important are your diet and lifestyle choices.

Who is most at risk of oesophageal cancer?

As with all cancers, the risk of developing oesophageal cancer depends on a number of factors and varies from person to person.

Lifestyle risk factors

  • Drinking alcohol
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking and chewing tobacco

Other risk factors

  • Age – risk increases as you get older. You are unlikely to develop oesophageal cancer if you are under 40
  • Gender – oesophageal cancer affects twice as many men as women
  • Gastric reflux – acid from the stomach travelling up into the oesophagus can lead to a condition called Barrett's oesophagus (where cells in the lower oesophagus change to become resistant to acid). This increases your risk, particularly of oesophageal adenocarcinoma
  • Infection with Human Papillomavirus (HPV) increases the risk of oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma

If any of these risk factors apply to you, it does not mean that you will develop oesophageal cancer – it just means that your risk may be higher than average.

How can you reduce your risk of oesophageal cancer?

The positive news is that there are steps you can take to reduce your risk. These steps are based on the findings from our Continuous Update Project (CUP).

  • Cut down on alcohol

There's strong evidence that drinking alcohol increases oesophageal cancer risk. Find out more about the link between alcohol and cancer or find out how many calories are in alcoholic drinks by using our alcohol calorie calculator.

  • Be a healthy weight

Being a healthy weight is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your cancer risk. Try our Body Mass Index calculator and waist measurement guide to check if you are a healthy weight and shape.

  • Don’t smoke

If you do smoke, stopping smoking will reduce your risk. The NHS stop smoking service can help you quit.

Visit NHS Choices to find out more about the symptoms and treatment of oesophageal cancer.