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Stages, types and grades

Find out about the different ways doctors can stage oesophageal cancer as well as the grades and types of oesophageal cancer.

Stages of cancer

The stage of a cancer tells you how big it is and how far it’s spread. It helps your doctor decide which treatment you need.

The tests and scans you have to diagnose your cancer give some information about the stage. Sometimes it’s not possible to be certain about the stage of a cancer until after surgery.

Doctors can use a number system or the TNM system to stage your cancer. 

Types of oesophageal cancer

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. They mainly start in the lower part of the oesophagus and are the most common type of oesophageal cancer.

Squamous cell cancer

These cancers develop from cells that make up the inner lining of your oesophagus. They tend to develop in the upper and middle part of the oesophagus.

Squamous cells are resistant to hot liquids and sharp foods and can heal quickly if damaged. As cells are damaged new cells are made to replace them.

Undifferentiated cancers

Undifferentiated means the specialist cannot tell what type of cell your cancer started from. This is usually because the cells are not mature enough to be specialised.

Specialisation of cells is called differentiation. So these primitive cancer cells are known as undifferentiated cancer cells.

Rare cancers

Other rare cancers can develop in the oesophagus they include 


The grade of a cancer tells you how much the cancer cells look like normal cells.

The grade gives your doctor an idea of how the cancer might behave and what treatment you need.

The grades of cancer cells are from 1 to 3:

  • grade 1 (low grade) look most like normal cells
  • grade 2 look a bit like normal cells
  • grade 3 (high grade) look very abnormal and not like normal cells
Last reviewed: 
05 Jul 2016
  • AJCC Cancer Staging Manual (7th edition)
    American Joint Committee on Cancer, Springer, 2010

  • Principles and practice of oncology (9th edition)
    VT De Vita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

  • TNM Classification of Malignant Tumours (7th edition) International Union Against Cancer
    LH Sobin, MK Gospodarowicz, CH Wittekind
    John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2009

  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser D
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2014

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