Occult esophageal adenocarcinoma: extent of disease and implications for effective therapy

Ann Surg. 1999 Sep;230(3):433-8; discussion 438-40. doi: 10.1097/00000658-199909000-00015.


Objective: The need for esophagectomy in patients with Barrett's esophagus, with no endoscopically visible lesion, and a biopsy showing high-grade dysplasia or adenocarcinoma has been questioned. Recently, endoscopic techniques to ablate the neoplastic mucosa have been encouraged. The aim of this study was to determine the extent of disease present in patients with clinically occult esophageal adenocarcinoma to define the magnitude of therapy required to achieve cure.

Methods: Thirty-three patients with high-grade dysplasia (23 patients) or adenocarcinoma (10 patients) and no endoscopically visible lesion underwent repeat endoscopy and systematic biopsy followed by esophagectomy. The surgical specimens were analyzed to determine the biopsy error rate in detecting occult adenocarcinoma. In those with cancer, the depth of wall penetration and the presence of lymph node metastases on conventional histology and immunohistochemistry staining was determined. The findings were compared with those in 12 patients (1 with high-grade dysplasia, 11 with adenocarcinoma) who had visible lesions on endoscopy.

Results: The biopsy error rate for detecting occult adenocarcinoma was 43%. Of 25 patients with cancer and no visible lesion, the cancer was limited to the mucosa in 22 (88%) and to the submucosa in 3 (12%). After en bloc esophagectomy, one patient without a visible lesion had a single node metastasis on conventional histology. No additional node metastases were identified on immunohistochemistry. The 5-year survival rate after esophagectomy was 90%. Patients with endoscopically visible lesions were significantly more likely to have invasion beyond the mucosa (9/12 vs. 3/25, p = 0.01) and involvement of lymph nodes (5/9 vs. 1/10, p = 0.057).

Conclusions: Endoscopy with systematic biopsy cannot reliably exclude the presence of occult adenocarcinoma in Barrett's esophagus. The lack of an endoscopically visible lesion does not preclude cancer invasion beyond the muscularis mucosae, cautioning against the use of mucosal ablative procedures. The rarity of lymph node metastases in these patients encourages a more limited resection with greater emphasis on improved alimentary function (esophageal stripping with vagal nerve preservation) to provide a quality of life compatible with the excellent 5-year survival rate of 90%.

MeSH terms

  • Adenocarcinoma / pathology
  • Adenocarcinoma / secondary
  • Adenocarcinoma / surgery*
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Barrett Esophagus / surgery
  • Biopsy
  • Diagnostic Errors
  • Esophageal Neoplasms / pathology
  • Esophageal Neoplasms / surgery*
  • Esophagectomy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lymphatic Metastasis
  • Male
  • Middle Aged