Can Esophageal Cancer Be Found Early?

Screening is the process of looking for cancer or pre-cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease. In the United States, screening the general public for esophageal cancer is not recommended by any professional organization at this time. This is because no screening test has been shown to lower the risk of dying from esophageal cancer in people who are at average risk.

However, people who have a high risk of esophageal cancer, such as those with Barrett’s esophagus, are often followed closely to look for early cancers and pre-cancers.

Testing people at high risk

Many experts recommend that people with a high risk of esophageal cancer, such as those with Barrett’s esophagus, have upper endoscopy regularly. For this test, the doctor looks at the inside of the esophagus through a flexible lighted tube called an endoscope. (see Tests for Esophageal Cancer.) The doctor may remove small samples of tissue (biopsies) from the area with Barrett’s so that they can be checked for dysplasia (pre-cancer cells) or cancer cells.

Doctors aren’t certain how often the test should be repeated, but most recommend testing more often if areas of dysplasia are found. This testing is repeated even more often if there is high-grade dysplasia (the cells appear very abnormal).

If the area of Barrett’s is large and/or there is high-grade dysplasia, treatment of the abnormal area might be advised because of the high risk that an adenocarcinoma is either already present (but was not found) or will develop within a few years. Treatment options for high-grade dysplasia might include surgery to remove part of the esophagus with the abnormal area, endoscopic mucosal resection (EMR), photodynamic therapy (PDT), or radiofrequency ablation (RFA). See Endoscopic Treatments for Esophageal Cancer. The outlook for these patients is relatively good after treatment.

Careful monitoring and treatment (if needed) may help prevent some esophageal cancers from developing. It may also detect some cancers early, when they are more likely to be treated successfully.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Posner MC, Minsky B, Ilson DH. Chapter 45 - Cancer of the esophagus. In: DeVita VT, Hellman S, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott-Williams & Wilkins; 2015.

Shaheen NJ, Falk GW, Iyer PG, Gerson LB; American College of Gastroenterology. ACG Clinical Guideline: Diagnosis and Management of Barrett's Esophagus. Am J Gastroenterol. 2015;111:30-50.

Shaheen NJ, Sharma P, Overholt BF, et al. Radiofrequency ablation in Barrett’s esophagus with dysplasia. N Engl J Med. 2009;360:2277–2288.

Last Medical Review: June 14, 2017 Last Revised: June 14, 2017

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