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Radiation treatment uses high energy rays (such as x-rays) to kill cancer cells. It is often combined with other types of treatment, such as chemotherapy (chemo) and/or surgery. Radiation may be used:

  • As part of the main treatment in some patients, often along with chemo (known as chemoradiation). This is often used if people can’t have surgery because of poor health or because they don’t want surgery.
  • Before surgery (and often along with chemo) to try to shrink the cancer and make it easier to remove (called neoadjuvant treatment).
  • After surgery (and often along with chemo) to try to kill any cancer cells that may have been left behind. This is known as adjuvant treatment.
  • To help ease the symptoms of advanced esophagus cancer such as pain, bleeding, or trouble swallowing. This is called palliative treatment.

External radiation uses a beam from outside the body. This is the kind most often used for cancer of the esophagus. The treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is stronger. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – usually takes longer. Most often, treatments are given 5 days a week for several weeks.

For internal or implant radiation (also called brachytherapy), the doctor passes an endoscope (a long, flexible tube) down the throat to place radioactive material very close to the cancer. This is most often used with more advanced esophageal cancers to shrink tumors so a patient can swallow more easily. This method is better used as a way to relieve symptoms (and not to try to cure the cancer).

Side effects of radiation treatment

Side effects of external radiation can include:

  • Skin changes in areas getting radiation – ranging from something like a sunburn to blisters and open sores
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • Painful sores in the mouth and throat
  • Dry mouth or thick saliva

During treatment, the radiation kills the normal cells in the lining of the esophagus, which can make it hurt to swallow. This typically improves within a few weeks.

Often these side effects go away when treatment ends, but some may last longer. For example, in some cases radiation can narrow the esophagus, which might mean you will need further treatment. Radiation to the chest might damage the lungs and lead to trouble breathing and shortness of breath.

Talk with your doctor before and during treatment about what side effects you can expect and how they could be reduced.

If you want to know more about this type of treatment, please see the Radiation Therapy section of our website or Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 05/21/2014
Last Revised: 02/04/2016