Esophageal cancer can occur in people of any age but is most common in people over 55 years old. Older age is one of the primary risk factors for esophageal cancer.

woman in an older age range having an exam to check for esophageal cancer Share on Pinterest
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Esophageal cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the tissue of your esophagus. The odds of developing esophageal cancer can vary by age, and it often affects people who have smoked or used alcohol heavily.

Conditions such as Barrett’s esophagus can also increase the risk. Symptoms of esophageal cancer can include difficulty swallowing, throat pain, and unintentional weight loss.

Learn more about esophageal cancer.

The risk of esophageal cancer increases with age. More than 80% of diagnoses occur in people over 55 years old, and the median age at diagnosis is 68 years.

It’s rare for younger people to receive this diagnosis. Fewer than 15% of people with esophageal cancer are younger than 55. The table below provides a more detailed breakdown based on data from the National Cancer Institute.

Age range and esophageal cancer diagnoses

Age rangePercentage of esophageal cancer diagnoses
over 848.3%

Esophageal cancer doesn’t always cause symptoms right away. When it does, symptoms can include:

  • pain when swallowing
  • difficulty swallowing
  • cough
  • hoarseness
  • chest pain, especially behind your breastbone
  • indigestion
  • unintentional weight loss
  • a lump you can feel under the skin of your throat

When to see your doctor

Esophageal cancer shares signs and symptoms with many other, less serious, conditions. Like all cancers, esophageal cancer is most treatable when diagnosed in early stages. If you have any symptoms that might indicate esophageal cancer, get them checked out, especially if you’ve had them for more than a week or two.

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The main treatment options for esophageal cancer include:


If doctors diagnose esophageal cancer at an early stage, they may be able to completely remove the tumor during surgery.

If the tumor is larger or if cancer has spread to nearby tissue, it may be necessary to remove parts of the esophagus or other structures, such as lymph nodes. In some cases, doctors may need to remove upper portions of the stomach as well.


Chemotherapy is drug therapy involving chemicals that destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used before or after surgery or along with radiation.


Radiation therapy uses radiation or high energy beams to destroy cancer cells. Radiation therapy may be external or internal. External radiation therapy involves radiation from a source outside your body, while internal radiation therapy involves an internal radiation source such as a liquid or an implant.

Radiation therapy may occur before or after surgery. It may also be combined with chemotherapy.

Targeted therapy and immunotherapy

Targeted therapy uses medications to “target” cancer cells specifically, and immunotherapy uses medications that help your immune system attack cancer cells.

Esophageal cancer and treatment options

The exact treatment used for esophageal cancer will depend on how advanced the esophageal cancer is:

  • Localized esophageal cancer: Localized cancer is limited to the area of first diagnosis. Treatment at this stage may involve surgery or radiation, with or without chemotherapy.
  • Locally advanced esophageal cancer: Locally advanced cancer is still in the area of first diagnosis but has spread to nearby lymph nodes. Treatment at this stage involves chemotherapy with radiation or chemotherapy alone.
  • Metastatic esophageal cancer: Metastatic cancer has spread beyond nearby lymph nodes and possibly to other structures or organs. Treatment for metastatic esophageal cancer may involve chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy.
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There are several known risk factors for esophageal cancer. Some risk factors, such as sex assigned at birth and ethnicity, are outside of a person’s control.

Esophageal cancer is more common in males, and certain types of esophageal cancer are more common in Black and Asian people.

A higher risk is also linked to health conditions such as chronic acid reflux disease, previous head and neck cancers, Barrett’s esophagus, and achalasia.

You might be able to change some risk factors for esophageal cancer, such as:

The outlook for esophageal cancer depends heavily on individual factors such as the stage of your cancer at diagnosis, your age, your overall health, and how your cancer responds to treatment.

For instance, the overall 5-year relative survival rate for esophageal cancer is 21%, but esophageal cancer treated in its early stages has a 5-year survival rate of 47%.

Your doctor can help you get a better understanding of your individual outlook.

There is no way to fully prevent esophageal cancer, but you can take steps to lower your risk. This may include lifestyle strategies such as:

  • quitting smoking, if you smoke
  • drinking alcohol only in moderation or not at all
  • making efforts to reach or maintain a moderate body weight
  • getting an HPV vaccine
  • avoiding working around certain cleaning solvents

If you have a condition that puts you at higher risk, such as Barrett’s esophagus, a healthcare professional might recommend additional preventive steps such as screening.

You can learn more about how age affects esophageal cancer by reading the answers to some common questions.

Can esophageal cancer run in families?

Yes. There is evidence to suggest that, in some cases, esophageal cancer is genetic and can run in families.

Is esophageal cancer a common type of cancer?

Esophageal cancer is rare. Only about 1% of all cancers in the United States are esophageal cancer.

Anyone can develop esophageal cancer, but some risk factors make it more likely, including older age. Esophageal cancer becomes more common with age, and the median age at diagnosis is 68 years. It’s rare in people under age 45.

Other risk factors for esophageal cancer include being male, having previous head or neck cancer, having certain other health and genetic conditions, smoking, drinking alcohol heavily, and having obesity.

Esophageal cancer is treatable but has the best outlook when it is diagnosed early.

Your doctor can help you understand your individual outlook.