The lungs are a common area where esophageal cancer can spread. It’s not uncommon for esophageal cancer to have already spread to the lungs at the time of diagnosis.
Esophageal cancer is when cancer develops in the esophagus, the muscular tube connecting your throat to your stomach. About
Like other cancers, esophageal cancers can spread to other organs and tissues of the body. This is called metastasis.
This article reviews treatment options and the outlook for people with esophageal cancer that has spread to the lungs.
How does esophageal cancer spread to the lungs?
Esophageal cancer can spread in several ways. These include:
- locally through surrounding tissue
- via the bloodstream
- by the lymphatic system
A 2017 study notes that the nature of the wall of the esophagus means there’s less of a barrier for esophageal cancer to spread locally to nearby tissues in the neck and chest. This includes the lungs.
Tumor location may also play a role. A
Researchers note that the lungs and liver are both richly supplied with blood, and that blood from the upper esophagus first drains into the lung. This could explain the correlation between upper esophageal tumors and metastasis to the lung.
When is esophageal cancer typically diagnosed?
Esophageal cancer is an
Esophageal cancer that has spread to the lungs is classified as stage 4, or metastatic, cancer. As such, treatment is usually systemic, meaning it acts throughout the entire body instead of locally.
Treatment typically involves one or a combination of the following:
targeted therapywith drugs like trastuzumab (Herceptin) or larotrectinib (Vitrakvi)
- immunotherapy with drugs such as nivolumab (Opdivo) or ipilimumab (Yervoy)
Palliative treatments are also used for esophageal cancer that’s spread to the lungs. These treatments help reduce symptoms and improve quality of life rather than cure cancer.
Palliative treatments may include:
- endoscopic procedures to help open an esophagus that’s narrow or blocked
- chemotherapy to help control the growth and symptoms of the cancer
- radiation therapy to help with pain and trouble swallowing
- pain medications
- anxiety medications or relaxation techniques to help with stress associated with shortness of breath
- draining fluid that’s collected around the lungs
Is esophageal cancer that has spread to the lungs curable?
Esophageal cancer that’s spread to the lungs is difficult to get rid of completely. Because of this, treatment typically focuses on managing the cancer and alleviating symptoms instead of curing the cancer.
Overall, the outlook for people with metastatic esophageal cancer is poor. A
The table below shows the 5-year relative survival rates for people with esophageal cancer according to the
A relative survival rate is an estimate of how long someone with a specific condition may live after their diagnosis compared with someone without the condition.
For example, a 5-year relative survival rate of 48.8% means someone with that condition is 48.8% as likely to live for 5 years as someone without the condition.
|5-year relative survival rate
|Local: cancer remains in the esophagus
|Regional: cancer has spread into nearby tissues
|Distant: cancer has spread to more distant tissues
Every person with cancer is different. Statistics don’t reflect individual factors or recent advances in treatment. An open conversation with your care team can give you a better sense of your condition and outlook.
Esophageal cancer tends to grow and spread quickly. Many times, a diagnosis isn’t made until cancer has spread to more distant tissues. The lungs are a common metastatic site for esophageal cancer.
When esophageal cancer has spread to the lungs, it’s typically treated with some combination of chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy. Palliative treatments are used as well.
The outlook for people with metastatic esophageal cancer is poor. However, it’s still important to work with your care team about your outlook and treatment options. It’s possible you may be eligible for a clinical trial that’s testing new treatments.