Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer
Problems swallowing and involuntary weight loss are the two common symptoms of esophageal cancer:
- A problem swallowing may be a feeling like the food is stuck in the throat or chest, or even choking on food. When swallowing becomes harder, people often change their diet and eating habits without realizing it. If the cancer keeps growing, at some point even liquids might be hard to swallow.
- Approximately half those with esophageal cancer lose weight without trying.
- Swallowing problems keep them from eating enough to maintain their weight.
- If there is bleeding into the esophagus, the blood then passes through the digestive tract, which may result in stools that are black.
- Over time, this blood loss can lead to anemia (low red blood cell levels), which can make you feel tired.
Additional symptoms are also common in patients with esophageal cancer, including:
- Chest pain
- Chronic cough
A variety of tests and procedures may be used to examine the esophagus to detect and diagnose esophageal cancer:
- Physical exam and medical history
- Chest X-ray
- Barium swallow (or upper gastrointestinal series) takes an X-ray of your upper digestive system — the esophagus, stomach and first section of the small intestine — after you drink a white, chalky fluid (barium). The barium coats the inside of these organs, outlining any abnormal areas.
- Esophagoscopy (or upper endoscopy) — A thin, flexible, lighted tube is inserted into your mouth and guided gently down your throat, enabling your doctor to view inside your stomach, look for abnormal areas, and remove a tissue sample for biopsy if needed. Your doctor will numb your throat first with an anesthetic spray and sedate you (with medications inserted into your vein) to help you relax.
- Biopsy is the only definitive way to diagnose esophageal cancer. This is usually done during an esophagoscopy and if the doctor sees something usual or suspicious. During a biopsy, your doctor removes cells or tissues to be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist. The pathologist checks for signs of cancer and can differentiate cancer cells from precancerous cells and from cells that are abnormal due to another condition such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and esophageal motility disorders.
Often a biopsy, along with other observations by the expert medical team at Houston Methodist, can rule out esophageal cancer; however, sometimes a biopsy may show precancerous changes in the esophagus.
When esophageal cancer is found early, there is a better chance of recovery.
Often, esophageal cancer is in an advanced stage, when it is diagnosed. At later stages, esophageal cancer can be treated but can rarely be cured.
Your prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on several factors:
- Stage of your cancer (whether it affects part of the esophagus, involves the whole esophagus or has spread to other places in the body)
- Size of your tumor
- General health