Cancers of the esophagus are usually found because of the symptoms they cause. Diagnosis in people without symptoms is rare and usually accidental (because of tests done for 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 a feeling like the food is stuck in the throat or chest, or even choking on food. The medical term for trouble swallowing is dysphagia. This is often mild when it starts, and then gets worse over time as the opening inside the esophagus gets narrower.
When swallowing becomes harder, 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 can get 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 might be hard to swallow.
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, so they are rarely seen as a signal that a person might have cancer.
Swallowing may become painful if 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 people 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 of 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 can 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’s important to have them checked by a doctor so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
Last Revised: 02/04/2016