How is cancer of the esophagus diagnosed?
Esophagus cancers are usually found because of signs or symptoms a person is having. If esophagus cancer is suspected, tests will be needed to confirm the diagnosis.
Signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer
In most cases, cancers of the esophagus are found because of the symptoms they cause. Diagnosis in people without symptoms is rare and usually accidental (because of tests done to check other medical problems). Unfortunately, most esophageal cancers do not cause symptoms until they have reached an advanced stage, when they are harder to treat.
The most common symptom of esophageal cancer is a problem swallowing, with the feeling like the food is stuck in the throat or chest. The medical term for this is dysphagia. This is often mild when it starts, and then gets worse over time as the opening inside the esophagus gets narrower. Dysphagia is commonly a late symptom caused by a large cancer.
When swallowing becomes difficult, people often change their diet and eating habits without realizing it. They take smaller bites and chew their food more carefully and slowly. As the cancer grows larger, the problem gets worse. People then may start eating softer foods that can pass through the esophagus more easily. They may avoid bread and meat, since these foods typically get stuck. The swallowing problem may even get bad enough that some people stop eating solid food completely and switch to a liquid diet. If the cancer keeps growing, at some point even liquids will not be able to pass.
To help pass food through the esophagus, the body makes more saliva. This causes some people to complain of bringing up lots of thick mucus or saliva.
Sometimes, people complain of pain or discomfort in the middle part of their chest. Some people describe a feeling of pressure or burning in the chest. These symptoms are more often caused by problems other than cancer, such as heartburn, and so they are rarely seen as a signal that a person may have cancer.
Swallowing may become painful when the cancer is large enough to limit the passage of food through the esophagus. Pain may be felt a few seconds after swallowing, as food or liquid reaches the tumor and has trouble getting past it.
About half of patients with esophageal cancer lose weight (without trying to). This happens because their swallowing problems keep them from eating enough to maintain their weight. Other factors include a decreased appetite and an increase in metabolism from the cancer.
Other possible symptoms with cancer of the esophagus can include:
- Chronic cough
- Bone pain
- Bleeding into the esophagus. This blood then passes through the digestive tract, which may turn stools black. Over time, this blood loss can lead to anemia (low red blood cell levels), which may make a person feel tired.
Having one or more of the symptoms above does not mean you have esophageal cancer. In fact, many of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by other conditions. Still, if you have any of these symptoms, especially trouble swallowing, it is very important to have them checked by a doctor so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
Medical history and physical exam
If you have symptoms that may be caused by esophageal cancer, the doctor will ask about your medical history to check for possible risk factors and to learn more about your symptoms. Your doctor will also examine you to look for possible signs of esophageal cancer and other health problems. He or she will probably pay special attention to your neck and chest areas.
If the results of the exam are abnormal, your doctor will likely order tests to help find the problem. You may also be referred to a gastroenterologist (a doctor specializing in diseases of digestive tract).
Imaging tests use x-rays, magnetic fields, sound waves, or radioactive substances to create pictures of the inside of your body. Imaging tests may be done for a number of reasons both before and after a diagnosis of esophageal cancer, including:
- To help find a suspicious area that might be cancerous
- To learn how far cancer may have spread
- To help determine if treatment has been effective
- To look for possible signs of cancer recurrence after treatment
In this test, a thick, chalky liquid called barium is swallowed to coat the walls of the esophagus. X-rays of the esophagus are then taken, which the barium outlines clearly. This test can be done by itself, or as a part of a series of x-rays that includes the stomach and part of the intestine, called an upper gastrointestinal (GI) series. A barium swallow test can show any irregularities in the normally smooth surface of the inner lining of the esophagus.
This is often the first test done to see what is causing a problem with swallowing. Even small, early cancers can often be seen using this test. Tumors grow out from the lining of the esophagus and stick out into the lumen (the open area of the tube). They cause the barium to coat that area of the esophagus unevenly. Early cancers can look like small round bumps or flat, raised areas (called plaques), while advanced cancers look like large irregular areas and cause a narrowing of the width of the esophagus.
This test can also be used to diagnose one of the more serious complications of esophageal cancer called a tracheo-esophageal fistula. This occurs when the tumor destroys the tissue between the esophagus and the trachea (windpipe) and creates a hole connecting them. Anything that is swallowed can then pass from the esophagus into the windpipe and lungs. This can lead to frequent coughing, gagging, or even pneumonia. This problem can be helped with surgery or an endoscopy procedure.
A barium swallow only shows the shape of the inner lining of the esophagus, so it cannot be used to determine how far a cancer may have spread outside of the esophagus.
Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan
The CT scan is a test that uses x-rays to produce detailed cross-sectional images of your body. Instead of taking one picture, like a standard x-ray does, a CT scanner takes many pictures of the part of your body being studied as it rotates around you. A computer then combines these pictures into an image of a slice of your body. Unlike a regular x-ray, a CT scan creates detailed images of the soft tissues and organs in the body.
A CT scanner has been described as a large donut, with a narrow table in the middle opening. You will need to lie still on the table while the scan is being done. CT scans take longer than regular x-rays, and you might feel a bit confined by the ring while the pictures are being taken.
CT scans are not usually used to make the initial diagnosis of esophageal cancer, but they can help see how far it has spread. CT scans often can show where the cancer is in the esophagus. These scans can also show the nearby organs and lymph nodes (bean-sized collections of immune cells to which cancers often spread first), as well as distant areas of cancer spread. The CT scan can help to determine whether surgery is a good treatment option.
Before any pictures are taken, you may be asked to drink 1 to 2 pints of a liquid called oral contrast. This helps outline the esophagus and intestines so that certain areas are not mistaken for tumors. If you are having any trouble swallowing, you need to tell your doctor before the scan. You may also receive an IV (intravenous) line through which a different kind of contrast dye (IV contrast) is injected. This helps better outline structures in your body.
The injection can cause some flushing (redness and warm feeling, especially in the face). Some people are allergic to the dye and get hives. Rarely, more serious reactions like trouble breathing and low blood pressure can occur. You can be given medicine to prevent and treat allergic reactions. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have any allergies or have ever had a reaction to any contrast material used for x-rays.
CT-guided needle biopsy: CT scans can also be used to guide a biopsy needle precisely into a suspected area of cancer spread. For this procedure, the patient remains on the CT scanning table while a radiologist advances a biopsy needle through the skin and toward the tumor. CT scans are repeated until the needle is within the mass. A fine needle biopsy sample or a larger core needle biopsy sample is then removed to be looked at under a microscope.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
Like CT scans, MRI scans provide detailed images of soft tissues in the body. But MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays. The energy from the radio waves is absorbed and then released in a pattern formed by the type of tissue and by certain diseases. A computer translates the pattern of radio waves given off by the tissues into a very detailed image of parts of the body. A contrast material might be injected into a vein. This contrast is different than the one used for CT scans, so being allergic to one doesn’t mean you are allergic to the other.
MRI scans are very helpful in looking at the brain and spinal cord, but they are not often needed to assess spread of esophageal cancer.
MRI scans are a little more uncomfortable than CT scans. First, they take longer – often up to an hour. Second, you have to lie inside a narrow tube, which is confining and can upset people with claustrophobia (a fear of enclosed spaces). Special, more open MRI machines can sometimes help with this if needed, although the images may not be as sharp in some cases. MRI machines make buzzing and clicking noises that you may find disturbing. Some centers provide earplugs to help block this noise out.
Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
For a PET scan, a form of radioactive sugar (known as fluorodeoxyglucose or FDG) is injected into the blood. The amount of radioactivity used is very low. Cancer cells in the body are growing rapidly, so they absorb large amounts of the radioactive sugar. After about an hour, you will be moved onto a table in the PET scanner. You lie on the table for about 30 minutes while a special camera creates a picture of areas of radioactivity in the body. The picture is not finely detailed like a CT or MRI scan, but it provides helpful information about your whole body.
This type of scan may be used to look for possible areas of cancer spread if nothing is found on other imaging tests.
Special machines are able to perform both a PET and CT scan at the same time (PET/CT scan). This lets the doctor compare areas of higher radioactivity on the PET with the more detailed appearance of that area on the CT.
An endoscope is a flexible, narrow tube with a video camera and light on the end that is used to look inside the body. Several tests that use endoscopes can help diagnose esophageal cancer or determine the extent of its spread.
This is an important test for diagnosing esophageal cancer. During an upper endoscopy, you are sedated (made sleepy) and then the doctor passes the endoscope down the throat and into the esophagus and stomach. The camera is connected to a monitor, which lets the doctor see any abnormal areas in the wall of the esophagus clearly.
The doctor can use special instruments through the scope to remove (biopsy) samples from any abnormal areas. These samples are sent to the lab so that a doctor can look at them under a microscope to see if cancer is present.
If the esophageal cancer is blocking the opening (called the lumen) of the esophagus, certain instruments can be used to help enlarge the opening to help food and liquid pass.
Upper endoscopy can give the doctor important information about the size and spread of the tumor, which can be used to help determine if the tumor can be completely removed with surgery.
This is actually a type of imaging test that involves the use of endoscopy. Ultrasound tests use sound waves to take pictures of parts of the body. They use no radiation and are very safe.
For an endoscopic ultrasound, the probe that gives off the sound waves is at the end of an endoscope, which is passed down the throat and into the esophagus. This allows the probe to get very close to the cancer. This is done with numbing medicine (local anesthesia) and light sedation.
The probe sends out sound waves, which bounce off normal tissue and any cancer that is present. The echoes are picked up by the probe and a computer turns the pattern of sound waves into a black-and-white image. The picture shows how deeply the tumor has grown into the esophagus. It can detect small abnormal changes very well.
This test is very useful in determining the size of an esophageal cancer and how far it has grown into nearby tissues. It can also help determine if nearby lymph nodes might be affected by the cancer. If enlarged lymph nodes are seen on the ultrasound and not beside the tumor, the doctor may use a thin, hollow needle to get biopsy samples of them. This helps the doctor decide if the tumor can be surgically removed.
This exam may be done for cancer in the upper part of the esophagus to see if it has spread to the windpipe (trachea) or the tubes leading from the trachea into the lung (bronchi). For this test, a lighted, flexible fiber-optic tube (bronchoscope) is passed through your mouth or nose and down into the windpipe and bronchi. The mouth and throat are sprayed first with a numbing medicine. You may also be given medicine through an intravenous (IV) line to make you feel relaxed.
If abnormal areas are seen, small instruments can be passed down the bronchoscope to take biopsy samples.
Thoracoscopy and laparoscopy
These procedures allow the doctor to see lymph nodes and other organs near the esophagus inside the chest (by thoracoscopy) or the abdomen (by laparoscopy) through a hollow lighted tube.
These procedures are done in an operating room while you are under general anesthesia (in a deep sleep). A small cut (incision) is made in the side of the chest wall (for thoracoscopy) or the abdomen (for laparoscopy). Sometimes more than one cut is made. The doctor then inserts a thin, lighted tube with a small video camera on the end through the incision to view the space around the esophagus. The surgeon can pass thin instruments into the space to remove lymph node samples and take biopsies to see if the cancer has spread. This information is often important in deciding whether or not a person is likely to benefit from surgery.
Lab testing of biopsy samples
An area seen on endoscopy or on an imaging test may look like cancer, but the only way to know for sure is to do a biopsy. For a biopsy, the doctor removes small pieces of tissue from an area that looks abnormal. This is most often done during an endoscopy exam.
A doctor called a pathologist then looks at the tissue under a microscope to see if any cancer cells are present. If there is cancer, the pathologist will determine the type (adenocarcinoma or squamous cell) and the grade of the cancer (how abnormal the patterns of cells look under the microscope). For details about grading, see the next section "How is cancer of the esophagus staged?" It takes at least a couple of days to get the results of a biopsy.
HER2 testing: If esophageal cancer is found but is too advanced for surgery, your biopsy samples may be tested for the HER2 gene or protein. Some people with esophageal cancer have too much of a protein called HER2 on the surface of their cancer cells, which helps the cells grow. However, a drug that targets the HER2 protein, known as trastuzumab (Herceptin®), may help treat these cancers when used along with chemotherapy. Only cancers that have too much of the HER2 gene or protein are likely to be affected by this drug, which is why doctors may test tumor samples for it. (See the "Targeted therapy for cancer of the esophagus" section for more information on this treatment.)
When looking for signs of esophageal cancer, a doctor may order a blood test called a complete blood count (CBC) to look for anemia (which could be caused by internal bleeding). A stool sample may be checked to see if it contains occult (unseen) blood.
If esophageal cancer is found, the doctor may recommend other tests, especially if surgery may be an option. For instance, blood tests can be done to make sure your liver and kidney functions are normal. Tests may also be done to check your lung function, since some people may have lung problems (such as pneumonia) after surgery. If surgery is planned or you are going to get medicines that may affect the heart, you may also have an electrocardiogram (EKG) and echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) to make sure your heart is functioning well.
Last Medical Review: 12/10/2012
Last Revised: 01/18/2013