Signs and Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer

Written by: Lukas Harnisch-Weidauer

Esophageal cancer forms in tissues that line the esophagus, the hollow, muscular tube that moves food and liquid from the throat down into the stomach. It forms on the inside of the lining and spreads through the outer layers as it grows. While relatively uncommon in the United States, esophageal cancer is often challenging to diagnose as it usually doesn’t cause symptoms until the cancer has advanced. 

It’s important to understand the signs of esophageal cancer and to inform your physician right away if you are experiencing them. 

Signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer  

Signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer may include:  

  • Painful or difficult swallowing  
  • Weight loss  
  • Regurgitation (or backward movement) of undigested food 
  • Chest pain unrelated to eating 
  • Heartburn 
  • Vomiting blood 

These symptoms can also be caused by other conditions or diseases that are not cancer. Alert your doctor about any of these, they will help you determine the cause. 

Risk factors of esophageal cancer

Understanding what makes you more at risk for developing esophageal cancer can help to lead discussions about diagnostic measures with your doctor.  

There’s a misconception that the people at risk for developing esophageal cancer are primarily smokers and drinkers. While smoking and drinking do increase the likelihood of developing the squamous cell carcinoma variant of this cancer, in reality, the most common form of this cancer, adenocarcinoma, can afflict just about anyone. Still, risk factors include:  

  • Being male and over 50 
  • Barrett’s esophagus: a condition that can be pre-cancerous or, in a more advanced state, an early form of esophageal cancer. It is often the result of chronic inflammation due to acid reflux and appears as abnormal cells lining the lower part of the esophagus. 
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) 
  • Obesity  
  • Smoking (including pipe and cigar)  

When esophageal cancer is found very early, it is usually “accidental,” meaning that patients are being medically examined for another reason when it’s suspected and found, sometimes in the pre-cancerous form called Barrett’s esophagus. When it’s caught early, there is a much better chance of recovery. 

Esophageal cancer treatment at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center

The team in Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center’s Center for Esophageal and Gastric Cancer specializes in treating adults with esophageal cancer. It includes world leaders in the field who are dedicated to providing the highest level of care and compassion. 

Comprehensive services provided to patients with these cancers include:    

  • Personalized treatment: plans based on a patient’s needs and the details of their specific cancer  
  • Experienced thoracic surgeons who specialize in esophageal cancer and who perform minimally invasive surgery  
  • A dedicated Thoracic Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for patients with esophageal cancer who need it 
  • Access to the most advanced treatments for esophageal cancer, including clinical trials that may not be available elsewhere  
  • Multidisciplinary care delivered by specialists