Reducing your risk of oesophageal cancer

Can oesophageal cancer be prevented?

Oesophageal cancer (or cancer of the gullet) is becoming more common in the UK. In 2013, 8,779 cases of oesophageal cancer were diagnosed. Men are twice as likely to get oesophageal cancer as women.

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 (ee-so-fa-gus) 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. Each types makes up about half of all cases:

  • squamous cell carcinoma ­– found in the cells that line the oesophagus
  • 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.

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. The positive news is that there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

People who use tobacco, drink alcohol or who are overweight or obese are particularly at risk. In fact, research shows that by not smoking or drinking alcohol, being a healthy weight and choosing a healthy diet, we could prevent most cases of oesophageal cancer in the UK.

Lifestyle risk factors

  • Smoking and chewing tobacco
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Diets low in vegetables and fruits

Other risk factors

  • Age – risk increases as you get older. You are unlikely to develop oesophageal cancer if you are under 40
  • 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 adenocarcinoma
  • Infection with a bacteria called 'Helicobacter pylori' (HP) can increase your risk of squamous cell carcinoma but can decrease your risk of adenocarcinoma

If any of these 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?

These steps are based on the findings of our research:

  • Don’t smoke – if you do smoke, NHS stop smoking can help you quit
  • 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 try our alcohol calorie calculator.

  • Stay in shape

Being a healthy weight is one of the best 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.

  • Eat well

Try to include more vegetables and fruits in your diet – aim for 5 or more portions a day. As part of a healthy diet you should also include wholegrains and pulses (such as beans and lentils), which contain fibre and other nutrients. Find out more about a healthy diet.

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