Causes and risks

Find out what causes Oesophageal cancer, including lifestyle factors and other medical conditions, and see what you can do to reduce your risk.

Lifestyle factors – such as obesity, smoking and alcohol – cause 9 out of 10 oesophageal cancers.

Being overweight or obese

Obesity means being very overweight with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher.

Try to maintain a healthy weight by being active and eating a healthy diet.

Being overweight or obese increases your risk of getting oesophageal cancer (cancer of the foodpipe). It is linked to more than 1 in 4 oesophageal cancers in men and more than 1 in 10 in women. The more overweight you are the higher the risk.

Smoking or using tobacco

Your risk increases the longer you smoke. It's never too late to give up but the sooner you stop, the better.

Smoking increases your risk of the 2 main types of oesophageal cancer – squamous cell cancer and adenocarcinoma. It is linked to two thirds of oesophageal cancers.

You also have an increased risk of oesophageal cancer if you

  • smoke a pipe
  • chew tobacco
  • use snuff
  • use betel quid (paan or pan)

Alcohol

Your risk increases if you drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week. The less you drink, the lower your risk of developing cancer.

Drinking alcohol increases your risk of squamous cell oesophageal cancer.

Your risk is higher if you drink and smoke but your risk reduces after you stop smoking or drinking.

Diet

You should eat at least 5 portions of fresh fruit and vegetables every day.

Not eating enough fruit and vegetables may increase your risk of getting oesophageal cancer.

Age

Cancer of the oesophagus is more common in older people. Around 8 in 10 oesophageal cancers (80%) develop in people aged 60 or over.

Barrett's oesophagus

Barrett's oesophagus increases your risk of oesophageal cancer, although the risk is still small.

Between 1 and 5 people out of 100 (1–5%) with Barrett’s oesophagus will develop oesophageal cancer.

Barrett's oesophagus is a condition where the cells lining your oesophagus have become abnormal. This can happen due to long term acid indigestion (acid reflux). Not everyone with Barrett's oesophagus has reflux.

Medical conditions

Some other very rare conditions increase oesophageal cancer risk, including achalasia. This is a rare condition that means the valve between your oesophagus and stomach doesn't relax, allowing food and liquid to go back into the oesophagus.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy for other cancers slightly increases your risk of oesophageal cancer, including

  • breast cancer
  • lung cancer
  • oropharynx cancer
  • larynx cancer
  • Hodgkin lymphoma

Your risk of getting oesophageal cancer is still small. You would be at a higher risk from your existing cancer if you didn't have the radiotherapy your doctor recommends.

Last reviewed: 
05 May 2016
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