Upper gastrointestinal cancers include malignancies arising in the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine.
Cancer of the esophagus is an increasingly common and extremely lethal malignancy. The diagnosis was made in 16,940 Americans in 2017 and led to 15,690 deaths. Almost all esophageal cancers are either squamous cell carcinomas or adenocarcinomas; the two histologic subtypes have a similar clinical presentation but different causative factors.
Worldwide, squamous cell carcinoma is the more common cell type, having an incidence that rises strikingly in association with geographic location. It occurs frequently within a region extending from the southern shore of the Caspian Sea on the west to northern China on the east, encompassing parts of Iran, central Asia, Afghanistan, Siberia, and Mongolia. Familial increased risk has been observed in regions with high incidence, although gene associations are not yet defined. High-incidence “pockets” of the disease are also present in such disparate locations as Finland, Iceland, Curaçao, southeastern Africa, and northwestern France. In North America and western Europe, the disease is more common in blacks than whites and in males than females; it appears most often after age 50 and seems to be associated with a lower socioeconomic status. Such cancers generally arise in the cervical and thoracic portions of the esophagus.
A variety of causative factors have been implicated in the development of squamous cell cancers of the esophagus (Table 76-1). In the United States, the etiology of such cancers is primarily related to excess alcohol consumption and/or cigarette smoking. The relative risk increases with the amount of tobacco smoked or alcohol consumed, with these factors acting synergistically. The consumption of whiskey is linked to a higher incidence than the consumption of wine or beer. Squamous cell esophageal carcinoma has also been associated with the ingestion of nitrates, smoked opiates, and fungal toxins in pickled vegetables, as well as mucosal damage caused by such physical insults as long-term exposure to extremely hot tea, the ingestion of lye, radiation-induced strictures, and chronic achalasia. The presence of an esophageal web in association with glossitis and iron deficiency (i.e., Plummer-Vinson or Paterson-Kelly syndrome) and congenital hyperkeratosis and pitting of the palms and soles (i.e., tylosis palmaris et plantaris) have each been linked with squamous cell esophageal cancer, as have dietary deficiencies of molybdenum, zinc, selenium, and vitamin A. Patients with head and neck cancer are at increased risk of squamous cell cancer of the esophagus.
TABLE 76-1Some Etiologic Factors Associated with Squamous Cell Cancer of the Esophagus |Favorite Table|Download (.pdf) TABLE 76-1 Some Etiologic Factors Associated with Squamous Cell Cancer of the Esophagus
|Excess alcohol consumption |
|Cigarette smoking |
|Other ingested carcinogens |
| Nitrates (converted to nitrites) |
| Smoked opiates |
| Fungal toxins in pickled vegetables |
|Mucosal damage from physical agents |
| Hot tea |
| Lye ingestion...|