Esophageal Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis

Esophageal Cancer Symptoms and Signs

Most people with esophageal cancer have symptoms that affect their ability to swallow.

Some people may not notice any symptoms until the cancer is at an advanced stage.

Esophageal cancer causes the esophagus to become narrower. This can make it harder to swallow.

It can also cause a feeling of having something stuck in the throat or chest. Some people have choking sensations.

In addition to swallowing troubles, common esophageal cancer symptoms may include:

  • Appetite loss or trouble eating solid foods
  • Bleeding in the esophagus
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Hiccups
  • Hoarseness
  • Overproduction of saliva
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss

Esophageal Cancer Risk Factors

Risk factors increase a person's chance of getting cancer. In some cases, people can change their habits or jobs to reduce or eliminate esophageal cancer risk factors.

Risk factors for esophageal cancer include:

  • Advanced age — those 55 and older have a higher risk.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) — men and women with GERD have a higher risk of developing adenocarcinoma of the esophagus. Risk increases based on how long and severe are the symptoms, such as reflux or heartburn.
  • Barrett's esophagus — doctors link this disease with a higher risk of developing esophageal cancer. People with GERD have a higher risk for getting Barrett's esophagus.
  • Obesity — men and women who are overweight or obese have a higher chance of getting esophageal cancer. People who are obese are more likely to have GERD.
  • Being male — men are three times as likely to get esophageal cancer.
  • Tobacco exposure — research has found that exposure to tobacco smoke causes esophageal cancer. Although the risk of getting esophageal cancer is greater for the smoker, secondhand smoke also can cause esophageal cancer in nonsmokers.
  • Injury of esophagus — prior chemical or mechanical injury may increase the risk of esophageal cancer.

Esophageal Cancer Diagnosis and Staging

Most diagnostic processes begin with a physical exam, a medical history, and a blood sample that goes to the lab for analysis.

Beyond these simple steps, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center specialists use proven procedures and state-of-the-art technologies to diagnose your type and stage of esophageal cancer.

Your doctor may order one or more of the following tests:

  • Esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD) — this test involves the insertion of a flexible tube into the esophagus and stomach. Your doctor checks the tissues for cancer cells and guides a biopsy needle into the cancerous tissue.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan — this imaging exam combines x-rays with computer technology to produce detailed pictures of the esophagus. 
  • Endoscopic ultrasound — your doctor passes an endoscope with an ultrasound probe into the esophagus. This produces detailed pictures of the tissues surrounding the esophagus.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan — MRI uses a strong magnet and radio waves to take pictures of structures inside the body.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan — PET creates an image that reflects your body’s biochemical activity. It uses a low level of radiation and a small amount of radioactive dye.
  • Upper GI series — This specialized type of x-ray, also called a barium swallow or esophagram, produces images of the esophagus, pharynx (the back of the mouth and throat), stomach, and duodenum. You swallow a liquid called barium, which coats the lining of the esophagus to make abnormalities easier to see on the x-ray.

The type and stage of your esophageal cancer will help your care team design a treatment plan just for you.

Staging ensures that every member of the care team understands the exact type, size, location, and spread of the cancer. Your care team will conduct tests and procedures to classify the type and stage of your disease.

Esophageal Cancer Prognosis and Outcomes

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center esophageal cancer doctors collaborate closely with other experts.

Nutrition and pain specialists, pathologists, and others work to ensure that the focus is on you — not the disease.

They consider not just the stage or type of cancer but also factors that affect your total health.

Your prognosis will depend on many factors:

  • Your diagnosis.
  • Your overall health.
  • How well your esophageal cancer care team expects your treatment plan to work.

We'll work at our highest level of expertise to achieve the best outcome possible.

Contact Us About Esophageal Cancer Symptoms

Learn more about esophageal cancer or make an appointment for esophageal cancer care at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center by calling 412-647-2811.