Oesophageal cancer can start anywhere in the food pipe. This is the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. It is also known as the gullet or oesophagus.

Your type of oesophageal cancer depends on the type of cell that it starts in. The 2 main types are squamous cell cancer and adenocarcinoma.

The lowest end of the oesophagus joins the stomach. The area where the oesophagus and stomach join is called the gastro oesophageal junction (GOJ). Cancers that start here are called gastro oesophageal junction (GOJ) cancers.

The different types

The type of oesophageal cancer you have tells you the type of cell that the cancer started in. Knowing this helps your doctor decide which treatment you need. 


Adenocarcinomas are cancers that develop in gland cells. These cells make mucus in the lining of the oesophagus.

This is the most common type of oesophageal cancer in the UK. It is more common in men than women and it's linked to being overweight and having a long history of acid reflux.

Oesophageal adenocarcinomas mainly affect the lower part of the oesophagus.

Squamous cell cancer

These cancers develop from squamous cells that make up the inner lining of your oesophagus.

This is the second most common type of oesophageal cancer in the UK. It's linked to smoking and drinking alcohol.

Squamous cell cancers tend to develop in the upper and middle part of the oesophagus.

Undifferentiated cancers

Your specialist doctor might not be able to tell which type of oesophageal cancer you have. This happens because the cancer cells can look very undeveloped under the microscope.

Undeveloped cancer cells are called undifferentiated cancers. So your doctor might say you have undifferentiated oesophageal cancer.

Rare types of oesophageal cancer

Treatment for rare types of oesophageal cancer varies, depending on what type of cell the cancer starts in. 


Melanoma is a type of skin cancer. Rarely, it can begin in the oesophagus.


Lymphomas are cancers of the lymphatic system. The treatment is different to other oesophageal cancers. 


Soft tissue sarcomas are cancers of the supporting cells of the body, such as bone or muscle. Rarely, a type of sarcoma called a gastrointestinal stromal tumour (GIST) can develop in the oesophagus. 

Last reviewed: 
09 Aug 2019
  • AJCC Cancer Staging Manual (8th edition)
    American Joint Committee on Cancer, Springer, 2017

  • Current management of oesophageal cancer
    N Rashid and others
    British Journal of Medical practicioners 2015 Volume 8, Issue 1, page 804

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