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Quick Facts

Esophageal Cancer

(Cancer of the Esophagus)


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Mar 2021| Content last modified Mar 2021
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The esophagus is the tube that connects your throat to your stomach.

The Esophagus

The Esophagus

What is esophageal cancer?

Cancer is the out-of-control growth of cells in your body. Cells are the tiny building blocks of your body. Cells specialize in what they do. Different organs are made of different kinds of cells. Almost any kind of cell can become cancerous. 

Esophageal cancer is cancer that starts in the lining of your esophagus.

  • You’re more likely to get esophageal cancer if you use tobacco and alcohol, have HPV infection, or have certain disorders of the esophagus

  • Symptoms include problems swallowing, weight loss, and pain

  • Unless the cancer is caught early, surgery, chemotherapy, and other therapies may not cure your cancer but can help make you more comfortable

What causes esophageal cancer?

You have a higher chance of having esophageal cancer if you:

  • Use tobacco or drink alcohol

  • Had head or neck cancer

  • Had radiation therapy to your esophagus to treat other nearby cancers

  • Had untreated reflux disease (called GERD) for many years

What are the symptoms of esophageal cancer?

You may not notice symptoms right away. Early symptoms include:

  • Having a hard time swallowing food, because your esophagus gets narrower as the cancer grows

  • Weight loss

  • Chest pain, which you may also feel in your back

Later symptoms include:

  • Having trouble swallowing liquids and saliva

  • Hoarse voice

  • Pain in your spine

  • Hiccups

  • Shortness of breath

Eventually, the cancer blocks your esophagus, which stops you from swallowing and causes saliva to build up in your mouth.

How can doctors tell if I have esophageal cancer?

Doctors suspect esophageal cancer from your symptoms. To know for sure, they'll do tests, such as:

  • Endoscopy (a procedure that uses a flexible viewing tube placed down your throat to look at your esophagus)

  • Biopsy (taking out part of the tissue to look at under a microscope)

  • Barium x-ray (x-rays taken after you swallow barium, which helps doctors see details in your digestive tract)

  • CT scan or ultrasound of the neck

How do doctors treat esophageal cancer?

If the cancer is small, doctors may be able to burn it or cut it out with surgery to try to cure you.

Most of the time, treatments for esophageal cancer help with symptoms such as pain and problems swallowing. Treatments include:

  • Surgery to cut out a tumor

  • Using a stent (a flexible metal mesh tube) to keep your esophagus open

  • Burning the cancer with a laser to widen the opening

Getting enough nutrition is important. If you can swallow, you may get special liquid nutrition shakes. If you can’t swallow, you may need to be fed through a tube in your belly.

Having esophageal cancer can be scary and upsetting. Your doctor may offer you support to help you deal with your symptoms and emotions and plan for the end of your life, such as making a living will.

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