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Stages of Esophageal Cancer

After esophageal cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the esophagus or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer cells have spread within the esophagus or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS): A procedure in which an endoscope is inserted into the body, usually through the mouth or rectum. For esophageal cancer, the endoscope is inserted through the mouth. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. A probe at the end of the endoscope is used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. A biopsy may also be done. This procedure is also called endosonography.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the chest, abdomen, and pelvis, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do. A PET scan and CT scan may be done at the same time. This is called a PET-CT.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Thoracoscopy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs inside the chest to check for abnormal areas. An incision (cut) is made between two ribs and a thoracoscope is inserted into the chest. A thoracoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue or lymph node samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer. In some cases, this procedure may be used to remove part of the esophagus or lung.
  • Laparoscopy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs inside the abdomen to check for signs of disease. Small incisions (cuts) are made in the wall of the abdomen and a laparoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted into one of the incisions. Other instruments may be inserted through the same or other incisions to perform procedures such as removing organs or taking tissue samples to be checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs, such as those in the neck, and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The picture can be printed to be looked at later.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.

Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.

When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.

  • Lymph system. The cancer gets into the lymph system, travels through the lymph vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer gets into the blood, travels through the blood vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.

The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if esophageal cancer spreads to the lung, the cancer cells in the lung are actually esophageal cancer cells. The disease is metastatic esophageal cancer, not lung cancer.

The grade of the tumor is also used to describe the cancer and plan treatment.

The grade of the tumor describes how abnormal the cancer cells look under a microscope and how quickly the tumor is likely to grow and spread. Grades 1 to 3 are used to describe esophageal cancer:

  • In grade 1, the cancer cells look more like normal cells under a microscope and grow and spread more slowly than grade 2 and 3 cancer cells.
  • In grade 2, the cancer cells look more abnormal under a microscope and grow and spread more quickly than grade 1 cancer cells.
  • In grade 3, the cancer cells look more abnormal under a microscope and grow and spread more quickly than grade 1 and 2 cancer cells.

The following stages are used for squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus:

Stage 0 (High-grade Dysplasia)

In stage 0, cancer has formed in the inner lining of the esophagus wall. Stage 0 is also called high-grade dysplasia.

Stage I squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus

Stage I is divided into stages IA and IB, depending on where the cancer has spread.

  • Stage IA: Cancer has spread into the mucosa layer or thin muscle layer of the esophagus wall. The cancer cells are grade 1 or the grade is not known.
  • Stage IB: Cancer has spread:
    • into the mucosa layer, thin muscle layer, or submucosa layer of the esophagus wall. The cancer cells are any grade or the grade is not known; or
    • into the thick muscle layer of the esophagus wall. The cancer cells are grade 1.

Stage II squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus

Stage II is divided into stages IIA and IIB, depending on where the cancer has spread.

  • Stage IIA: Cancer has spread:
    • into the thick muscle layer of the esophagus wall. The cancer cells are grade 2 or 3 or the grade is not known; or
    • into the connective tissue layer of the esophagus wall. The tumor is in the lower esophagus; or
    • into the connective tissue layer of the esophagus wall. The cancer cells are grade 1. The tumor is in either the upper or middle esophagus.
  • Stage IIB: Cancer has spread:
    • into the connective tissue layer of the esophagus wall. The cancer cells are grade 2 or 3. The tumor is in either the upper or middle esophagus; or
    • into the connective tissue layer of the esophagus wall. The grade of the cancer cells is not known, or it is not known where the tumor has formed in the esophagus; or
    • into the mucosa layer, thin muscle layer, or submucosa layer of the esophagus wall. Cancer is found in 1 or 2 lymph nodes near the tumor.

Stage III squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus

Stage III is divided into stages IIIA and IIIB, depending on where the cancer has spread.

  • Stage IIIA: Cancer has spread:
    • into the mucosa layer, thin muscle layer, or submucosa layer of the esophagus wall. Cancer is found in 3 to 6 lymph nodes near the tumor; or
    • into the thick muscle layer of the esophagus wall. Cancer is found in 1 or 2 lymph nodes near the tumor.
  • Stage IIIB: Cancer has spread:
    • into the thick muscle layer or the connective tissue layer of the esophagus wall. Cancer is found in 1 to 6 lymph nodes near the tumor; or
    • into the diaphragm, pleura, sac around the heart, azygos vein, or peritoneum. Cancer may be found in 1 or 2 lymph nodes near the tumor.

Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus

Stage IV is divided into stages IVA and IVB, depending on where the cancer has spread.

  • Stage IVA: Cancer has spread:
    • into the diaphragm, pleura, sac around the heart, azygos vein, or peritoneum. Cancer is found in 3 to 6 lymph nodes near the tumor; or
    • into nearby structures, such as the aorta, airway, or spine. Cancer may be found in 1 to 6 lymph nodes near the tumor; or
    • to 7 or more lymph nodes near the tumor.
  • Stage IVB: Cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the liver.

The following stages are used for adenocarcinoma of the esophagus:

Stage 0 (High-grade Dysplasia)

In stage 0, cancer has formed in the inner lining of the esophagus wall. Stage 0 is also called high-grade dysplasia.

Stage I adenocarcinoma of the esophagus

Stage I is divided into stages IA, IB, and IC, depending on where the cancer has spread.

  • Stage IA: Cancer has spread into the mucosa layer or thin muscle layer of the esophagus wall. The cancer cells are grade 1 or the grade is not known.
  • Stage IB: Cancer has spread:
    • into the mucosa layer or thin muscle layer of the esophagus wall. The cancer cells are grade 2; or
    • into the submucosa layer of the esophagus wall. The cancer cells are grade 1 or 2 or the grade is not known.
  • Stage IC: Cancer has spread:
    • into the mucosa layer, thin muscle layer, or submucosa layer of the esophagus wall. The cancer cells are grade 3; or
    • into the thick muscle layer of the esophagus wall. The cancer cells are grade 1 or 2.

Stage II adenocarcinoma of the esophagus

Stage II is divided into stages IIA and IIB, depending on where the cancer has spread.

  • Stage IIA: Cancer has spread into the thick muscle layer of the esophagus wall. The cancer cells are grade 3 or the grade is not known.
  • Stage IIB: Cancer has spread:
    • into the connective tissue layer of the esophagus wall; or
    • into the mucosa layer, thin muscle layer, or submucosa layer of the esophagus wall. Cancer is found in 1 or 2 lymph nodes near the tumor.

Stage III adenocarcinoma of the esophagus

Stage III is divided into stages IIIA and IIIB, depending on where the cancer has spread.

  • Stage IIIA: Cancer has spread:
    • into the mucosa layer, thin muscle layer, or submucosa layer of the esophagus wall. Cancer is found in 3 to 6 lymph nodes near the tumor; or
    • into the thick muscle layer of the esophagus wall. Cancer is found in 1 or 2 lymph nodes near the tumor.
  • Stage IIIB: Cancer has spread:
    • into the thick muscle layer of the esophagus wall. Cancer is found in 3 to 6 lymph nodes near the tumor; or
    • into the connective tissue layer of the esophagus wall. Cancer is found in 1 to 6 lymph nodes near the tumor; or
    • into the diaphragm, pleura, sac around the heart, azygos vein, or peritoneum. Cancer may be found in 1 or 2 lymph nodes near the tumor.

Stage IV adenocarcinoma of the esophagus

Stage IV is divided into stages IVA and IVB, depending on where the cancer has spread.

  • Stage IVA: Cancer has spread:
    • into the diaphragm, pleura, sac around the heart, azygos vein, or peritoneum. Cancer is found in 3 to 6 lymph nodes near the tumor; or
    • into nearby structures, such as the aorta, airway, or spine. Cancer may be found in 1 to 6 lymph nodes near the tumor; or
    • to 7 or more lymph nodes near the tumor.
  • Stage IVB: Cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the liver.
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Navigating Care disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information. This information was sourced and adapted from Adapted from the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries on www.cancer.gov.

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