Esophageal Cancer: Five Things You Need to Know

Medically reviewed by Peter C. Enzinger, MD

Although it is not a common disease, esophageal cancer affects about 18,000 new patients each year in the United States. Typically, the disease is found more often in men than in women, with men having about a ten-fold higher risk of developing esophageal cancer.

“Esophageal and gastric cancers are some of the most stubborn and aggressive cancers that we treat in the United States today,” explains Peter Enzinger, MD, director of the Center for Esophageal and Gastric Cancer at Dana-Farber. “Therapies must be quite aggressive to treat these cancers, but we must know how to effectively treat any side effects as well.”

Here are five key facts you should know about esophageal cancer:

1.      What are the risk factors associated with esophageal cancer?

While smoking and drinking can increase the likelihood of developing esophageal cancer, the disease can affect anyone.

Some common risk factors are:

2.      What is Barrett’s esophagus and how does it relate to esophageal cancer?

Peter Enzinger, MD, sees patients in the Center for Esophageal and Gastric Cancer at Dana-Farber.

Barrett’s esophagus is a pre-cancerous or, in some cases, early form of esophageal cancer. It is often due to chronic inflammation from acid reflux and appears as abnormal cells lining the esophagus. When detected early, there is a better chance of preventing the further development of cancer.

If diagnosed, it is important to treat Barrett’s esophagus to prevent the development of esophageal cancer. People diagnosed with an early form of Barrett’s esophagus will take medication and make lifestyle changes to reverse symptoms. If it is a high-grade form of Barrett’s esophagus, doctors may use a procedure called radiofrequency ablation, which removes abnormal tissue and allows normal tissue to grow back.

3.      What are the signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer?

The early stages of esophageal cancer typically have no symptoms. As the disease advances, symptoms start to become more noticeable. The most common symptoms include painful/difficult swallowing, weight loss, and regurgitation of food.

4.      How is esophageal cancer diagnosed?

A physician will conduct several tests to determine whether someone has esophageal cancer. The tests typically include a combination of chest X-rays, barium swallow, esophagoscopy, endoscopy, blood chemistry studies, complete blood count (CBC), or endoscopic ultrasound (EUS).

5.      What are the treatment options for esophageal cancer?

Esophageal cancer is difficult to treat because it is usually diagnosed in later stages of the disease. For many patients, doctors will perform surgery to remove the cancer. If the disease is diagnosed in a later stage, doctors may also recommend chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy prior to surgery.

Patients may also consider clinical trials for treatment. Dana-Farber currently offers several clinical trials for esophageal cancer and a national list is maintained at

For more information on esophageal cancer, visit the Center for Esophageal and Gastric Cancer at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.

32 responses to “Esophageal Cancer: Five Things You Need to Know

  1. This says “no symptoms.” I’m no doctor, but I think severe heartburn is a big symptom of damage to the esophagus. If you are popping tums everyday you may have a bigger problem then you think. Get checked. My father-in-law was gone in 6 months after diagnosis, but had heart burn for 20 years. A beautiful fish tank in his memory is at Dana-Faber. 🙂

    1. Dear Kara:
      Thank you for commenting and I’m so sorry about your father-in-law. Typically, there are no symptoms at early stages but thank you for reminding people about the importance of getting things checked out. And I’m sure many patients, family and staff enjoy the fish tank every day.

    2. Kara, you are spot on with this. We have been trained to believe that heartburn is normal. Just take a Tums or Rolaids and you’re all set. As a matter of fact, this is going to mask the symptoms that would get you the attention you need for early diagnosis. When my wife first complained of difficulty in swallowing, she was given omeprazole. When it stopped helping, they increased the dose. When she finally choked and needed emergency intervention, they ordered the first significant test (I think they went in this order: Upper GI, X-Ray, CT Scan. It was probably 2 months between her first visit and the first major test. The good news? She has been 7 years since she was treated with no evidence of disease. And the doctor’s office that she visits is much more careful with these cases now.

    3. My dad was also gone within 6 mos. after diagnosis. Not only did he have reflux, but for TWO YEARS prior he went to doctors complaining of a sore throat (thinking he had a persistent cold) but by the time they thought to look into ANYthing it was too late.

      1. Dear Sharon —
        We are so sorry to hear about the loss of your father. Thank you for connecting with us and sharing your story.

  2. Lost my 46 year old husband to esophageal cancer 5 years ago. No symptoms until he was already in advanced stage 4. Chemo, Radiation and and Esophagectomy all for nothing. Sucks.

    1. I hear ya’.!!! ~ loud & clear.!!! Absolutey devastating ‘way-too-go’ .. Seen it, been there., & it sux!!

  3. Dear Colleen:
    We’re so sorry about your husband. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

  4. Diagnosed at 46 as well. Radiation, Chemo, esophajectomy, and more Chemo, I just received results of 24 month scan with no evidence of recurring disease. I am back to work full time as a firefighter in Everett Ma. Forever grateful to my DFCI/BWH team.

    1. Dear Joe–
      Wonderful to hear you are doing well. Thank you for sharing and connecting with us. All the best to you and your family!

  5. My father was diagnosed 6/13 at Stage IV. He started having pain when swallowing and had lost weight. He died 8 months later after giving it a good fight. No one should have to go through what he endured. No dr. had ever suggested endoscopy. My thought is why not have the endoscopy while having a colonoscopy? To those of you who are winning the fight – best of luck!!! To those of you who have lost a loved one from this dreaded disease – it sucks big time!!!

    1. Dear Julie —
      We are so sorry to hear about your father. Thank you for taking the time to read and connect with us. Wishing you and your family all the best.

  6. Though treated at UMass Worcester and not Dana Farber, I am a miracle patient who survived all of this and am currently cancer free and living a normal life. With the exception of some digestive issues related to the stomach and esophageal resection surgery I underwent, I have no ongoing problems. I had a stage 4 tumor, 3 inches in length growing from my lower esophagus into my stomach, and went through a huge battery of radiation, chemo, and surgery… all very intense but if you have a strong constitution and will to live, along with this care you can get through it. I am going on four years distance from my diagnosis and amaze my doctors whenever I see them. The medical community, technology, precision radiation techniques, pharmaceuticals, hospitals, etc., are as good here in Massachusetts as anywhere in the world! Phil Coleman

    1. Dear Phil —
      It is so great to hear how well you are doing — thank you so much for sharing and connecting with us. Wishing you all the best!

  7. My Dad was one of the lucky ones. In 1992 he had some new some pretty radical (at the time) surgery by Dr. Sugerbaker at Dana Farber where they removed part of his esophagus and pulled his stomach up and attached them. He was one of 1,000 that lived more than a few years and one of 10,000 that lived more than 10 years. The radiation damaged his heart and that caused lots of medical problems in the years that followed, but we all felt lucky to have him in our lives for another 18 years and he we was thrilled to see several of this children get married and enjoy time with many grandchildren.No doubt at all that the Dana Farber saved his life.I understand that the same doctor traveled far and wide showing others this technique in the following years.

    1. Dear Stephen —
      It’s wonderful to hear that you had a chance to spend many years with your father. Thank you so much for connecting with us and sharing your story. All the best!

  8. My father-in-law had this about 6 years ago. He had radiation then the surgery and is cancer free now. I beleive his surgery was at Beth Isreal Deaconess. The worst part for us was the recovery and modifying of his diet. Luckily my wife (his daughter) is was an oncology nurse at the time so she helped out alot during the recovery. He still has stomach issues and can’t eat a lot of what he used too and still gets sick alot. But I think he still considers him self lucky to have had the great care he received!

  9. I Had been diagnosed with Barrets when my gastro md did an endoscopy. I saw on Dr Oz that people using himalayan salt no longer had Barrets. I started using himalayan salt because of all the other good benefits. Two yeara ago at my last endoscopy my Dr. told me I had no sign of Barrets. I go back in March 2015 for another endoscopy.

    1. I have Barrett’s, and I am curious about your experience with himalayan salt. Did you just use it in place of iodized salt or did you have to take it in larger quantities? What did the doctor feel was the medicinal properties of it? I am obese and have edema issues, so I don’t use salt much, but I am interested in this as I would love to find something to help this condition. I hate living with the fear of having a pre-cancerous condition and wondering if I have to have endoscopies every couple years forever. Thanks!

      1. Dear Ginger —
        There is not much evidence out there that shows the benefits of Himalayan salt vs. regular salt. However, a less-processed option like sea salt or Himalayan salt may be a personal preference. Overall, it’s important to watch the amount of sodium in your diet, especially in packaged baked foods as well as crackers, sauces, broth and soup. Most adults should consume no more than 2300 mg of sodium each day and for some the recommended level is even lower. For more information on how to flavor your food without using lots of salt, check out this webpage:
        I hope this is helpful and wish you all the best!

  10. My mother also had esophogeal cancer that was diagnosed in 1993. We were told that it didn’t look good and only radiation could be tried. That went well and she eventually had the surgery and she learned oesophogeal speech and did really well with it. We were lucky and had 11yrs after the surgery. We didn’t think we’d get that- but it’s never enough. She passed in 2004 but she’s with me every day. We got treated over at Mass Eye&Ear and those doctors are the best!

  11. At 56, I started having difficulty swallowing. It was diagnosed 3 months later. Went thru chemo, radiation and them some pretty radical surgery. Scan spotted a distant malignant cell reducing the odds to less than 1%. Went from 225 lbs to 155 lbs in 3 months. Went thru a second round of chemo (Xyloda) and radiation. A year later, my radiologist called me the ”miracle man.” Now 10 years later, my Oncologist ended my semi-annual MRI’s RTC. cancer free and no indication. I am blessed to be able to see my three children settle into prominent careers. Many thanks and grateful prayers to my medical team for all their efforts, years of study and genuine concern.

  12. My dad my diagnosed on December 21 with stage 4 esophageal cancer and passed away January 25. I had never even heard of this type of cancer until my dad was diagnosed. He was only 56 years old when we lost him. He was having trouble keeping anything down and the doctor thought it was the flu. If only it was that. I think people need to get anything checked out when they do not feel right. More awareness needs to be brought about this awful cancer. I miss my daddy every day.

    1. Dear Kelly —
      We are so sorry for the loss of your father. Sending our condolences to you and your family.

  13. I lost my dad 9 months after he was diagnosed, in 2013. He used to be a heavy smoker in his younger days but had quit over 35 years ago. He looked great and exercised 2 times a day. He would take a long walk in the morning and rode his bike in the afternoon. He would take Tums quite often but we never thought anything of it. We had no idea his heartburn could be something serious. One day he was eating an apple and he felt it get caught in his throat. It wouldn’t go down. It started happening more often. Food was getting caught and he felt it in his esophagus. He had an endoscopy and was diagnosed with Stage 3 Esophageal Cancer. His treatment was very aggressive. Radiation/Chemo. Also a feeding tube was put in. He became very ill from the chemo and had to stop. After treatment was over they had to put a stent in his esophagus to keep it open because they removed the feeding tube. The stent perforated the mass or the wall of the esophagus and he hemorrhaged to death 6 days later. He started vomiting large amounts of blood at home, we rushed him to the hospital and he died of blood loss in front of us. He still had hopes they would save him but when they called the priest, he knew. It is a horrible disease. I wish we had known, about his acid reflux…maybe they could have done something.

    1. Dear Norm —
      We are so sorry to hear about the loss of your father. Thank you for sharing your story and bringing awareness to our readers. Wishing you and your family all the best.

  14. I lost my husband on Christmas morning 2012 just 4 months from his diagnosis. He had just turned 60 that October 31st. Like many of the other bloggers we didn’t know until it was too late. He started with food getting caught in his throat then food getting stuck. He had an endoscopy done August 2012 which led to the diagnosis of esophageal cancer and they “thought” it was a stage 2 or 3 when in fact we were told stage 4 in November. His father died from this same cancer. This was just the beginning of a downward spiral. He had a feeding tube and a port put in a few weeks later. I don’t know what really happened but he went into those procedures the husband and father we all knew, but he came out acting like someone we didn’t know. His personality had dramatically changed and we never knew why. Someone asked us if he’d had a small stroke or a heart attack when these procedures were done. We were not told this if it did happen. In hindsight, we remember being told this was a same day surgery but several hours later when we were able to finally see him, he was in ICU. From there he went to another level of ICU but still ICU. He was now facing radiation and chemo and then surgery but unfortunately he had Hepatitus C and after almost six weeks of radiation and only two chemo treatments, his liver shut down and there was no turning back. There was no need for any further treatment of any kind and we now found ourselves in hospice care. I spent every night with him at the hospital the last 3 weeks of his life. This was the most traumatic and heartbreaking thing that we’d ever been through. He was this handsome 6 foot 2 man but when he left us he was just a shell of himself and hardly recognizable. Christmas will never be the same for our family. In hindsight, we had a lot of “woulda coulda” moments and one being the possibility of us seeking treatment from another facility like Dana Farber. Unfortunately, we never did because we thought he was at the BEST facility that he could be at. In the beginning, we thought he’d get through it. He beat Hodgkins Lymphoma stage 4 the first year we were married. We were married in April and he was diagnosed that same August with Hodgkins but he beat the odds on this one. We kept thinking that if he made it through all that, he certainly would do it again. I guess I was the last sell out this next time around. We were not ready or prepared for his death to happen. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss him and I think and talk to him all of the time. I will NEVER forget everything that he went through and he just wanted to live.

    1. Dear Marcia —

      Our deepest condolences to you and your family. We are so sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. Thank you for sharing your story and bringing awareness to our readers. Best wishes to you.

  15. I lost my dad yesterday to esophageal cancer, one year, to the week, after his first diagnosis. Although I DO feel lucky to have gotten the extra time we got after his excruciating treatment, I feel very cheated by this disease. I miss my daddy too. :'(

  16. Dear Jane —

    We are so very sorry to hear about the loss of your father. Sending warm thoughts to you and your family during this difficult time.

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