Cancer Research UK on Google+ Cancer Research UK on Facebook Cancer Research UK on Twitter

The oesophagus (food pipe)

Men and women discussing non oesophageal cancer

This page tells you about the food pipe (oesophagus). You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

The oesophagus (food pipe)

The oesophagus or food pipe is part of the digestive system. It is also sometimes called the gullet. It is the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. The oesophagus is about 26cm (10.5 inches) long in adults. As it passes through the chest, on its way to the stomach, it lies between the windpipe (trachea) and spinal cord.

Glands in the wall of the oesophagus produce mucus to help food to slide down more easily when you swallow. It is the cells of these glands that become cancerous in adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus.

The lymph nodes

Like all other parts of the body, the area containing the oesophagus also contains lymph nodes. These are also called lymph glands. The lymph nodes are often the first place that cancer cells spread to when they break away from a tumour. So surgeons often remove them during cancer surgery and send them off to the lab. A pathologist examines them to see if they contain any cancer cells.

The presence of cancer cells in the lymph nodes is part of the staging of the cancer. The stage is important because it helps the doctor to decide which is the most suitable treatment for you.
 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the about oesophageal cancer section.

 

 

What the oesophagus is

The oesophagus or food pipe is part of the digestive system. It is also sometimes called the gullet. It is the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. It is about 26cm (10.5 inches) long in adults. As it passes through the chest, on its way to the stomach, it lies between the windpipe (trachea) and spinal cord.

Diagram showing the position of the oesophagus

 

Parts of the oesophagus

The oesophagus has 3 main sections - the upper, middle and lower. Cancer can develop anywhere along the length of the oesophagus. The wall of the oesophagus has 4 layers. These are

  • The inner layer (mucosa) - skin like lining of the inside of the oesophagus
  • Layer of supportive tissue (submucosa) - contains blood vessels, nerves and glands
  • Muscle layer (muscularis) - helps to push food towards the stomach when you swallow
  • Outer layer (adventitia) - outer covering of the oesophagus

The oesophagus joins to the top part of the stomach. This is called the gastro oesophageal junction. There is a valve here that helps to keep the stomach contents from coming back up into the oesophagus. The valve is called the cardiac sphincter.

 

What the oesophagus does

The oesophagus carries food and liquid to the stomach with waves of muscle contractions. Glands in the wall of the oesophagus produce mucus to help food to slide down more easily when you swallow. It is the cells of these glands that become cancerous in adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus.

 

The lymph nodes

Like all other parts of the body, the area containing the oesophagus also contains lymph nodes. These are also called lymph glands. They are small bean shaped glands that are part of the lymphatic system. They help to control infection by filtering foreign material out of the blood and lymphatic fluid, including bacteria and viruses.

The lymph nodes are often the first place that cancer cells spread to when they break away from a tumour. So surgeons often remove them during cancer surgery and send them off to the lab. There, a pathologist examines them closely to see if they contain any cancer cells. The presence of cancer cells in the lymph nodes is part of the staging of the cancer. The stage is important because it helps the doctor to decide which is the most suitable treatment.

Rate this page:
Submit rating

 

Rated 4 out of 5 based on 52 votes
Rate this page
Rate this page for no comments box
Please enter feedback to continue submitting
Send feedback
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team

No Error

Updated: 20 March 2014