The oesophagus, gullet or food pipe is part of the digestive system, carrying food from the mouth to the stomach. There are two main types of cancer that affect it: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma.
The research by the IARC, the specialist cancer agency of the World Health Organisation, looked at figures for new cases of the disease around the world in 2012.
The findings, published in the journal Gut, show that rates of squamous cell oesophageal cancer have remained fairly stable or have even dropped in recent times, but those of adenocarcinoma have risen, particularly among countries in the developed world.
It also found that men across the world are around four times more likely than women to develop adenocarcinoma.
The UK had the highest rate (7.2 cases per 100,000 men, and 2.5 cases per 100,000 women), with the Netherlands, the Republic of Ireland, Iceland and New Zealand also near the top of the table.
Nicola Smith, health information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: “These worrying statistics really highlight the need to tackle oesophageal cancer in the UK. Survival rates for this type of cancer remain low which is why we are increasing our funding in this area as part of our new strategy.
As with most cancers, cancer of the oesophagus is more common in older people, with more than eight out of 10 cases diagnosed in people aged 60 or over.
Smith stressed that early diagnosis of the disease was crucial for improving survival
“The chances of survival are better if oesophageal cancer is spotted at an early stage. Which is why we are supporting Public Health England’s national Be Clear on Cancer oesophago-gastric campaign, launching in January 2015,” she said.
“If you notice any unusual changes that don’t go away, like difficulty swallowing or heartburn most days, you should get checked out by your doctor. And we know that smoking and being overweight or obese both raise the risk of the most common type of oesophageal cancer in the UK, adenocarcinoma, so healthy lifestyle changes could make a real difference.”
The researchers calculated there were 398,000 new cases of squamous cell oesophageal cancer and 52,000 of oesophageal adenocarcinoma across the world in 2012, equivalent to a rate of 5.2 and 0.7 cases per 100,000 of the population, respectively.
The analysis showed that oesophageal cancer was the eighth most common cancer worldwide.
The highest regional number of new cases of squamous cell oesophageal cancer was in Eastern and South East Asia, and about 80 per cent of the cases occurred in the Central and South-East Asian region, followed by sub Saharan Africa and Central and South America.
Northern and Western Europe accounted for the regions with the highest number of new cases of oesophageal adenocarcinomas, followed by South East Asia, including China, and North America.