Palliative Therapy for Cancer of the Esophagus

Palliative therapy is treatment aimed at preventing or relieving symptoms instead of trying to cure the cancer. The main purpose of this type of treatment is to improve the patient’s comfort and quality of life.

Several types of treatment can be used to help prevent or relieve symptoms of esophageal cancer. In some cases, they are given along with other treatments that are intended to cure the cancer. In other cases, palliative treatments are given when a cure is not possible.

Esophageal dilation

This procedure is used to stretch out an area of the esophagus that is narrowed or blocked to allow better swallowing.

A small balloon-like device or a device shaped like a cylinder is passed down the throat and pushed through the narrowed area to stretch it out. This can be repeated if needed. Before the procedure, your doctor may give you a sedative to help you relax and may numb your throat by spraying it with a local anesthetic.

There is a small risk of bleeding or tearing a hole in the esophagus (called a perforation) with this procedure, which could require surgery or other treatments to fix. The esophagus typically stays open only a few weeks after dilation, so this is often followed by other treatments (such as placing a stent) to help keep the esophagus open.

Other endoscopic procedures

Several types of endoscopic procedures can be used to help keep the esophagus open in people who are having trouble swallowing. These techniques are described in more detail in the section “ Endoscopic treatments for cancer of the esophagus.” Procedures that may be used include:

  • Esophageal stent placement
  • Photodynamic therapy
  • Electrocoagulation
  • Laser ablation
  • Argon plasma coagulation

Radiation therapy

External-beam radiation can often help relieve some of the symptoms from advanced esophageal cancer, including pain and problems swallowing. Radiation is often used for cancer that has spread to the brain or spine, but it is also useful in treating problems with swallowing from a narrowed or blocked esophagus.

If an area had been treated with external beam radiation therapy earlier, it may not be able to be treated that way again. In that case, brachytherapy may be an option. Brachytherapy is especially useful in helping to relieve a blocked esophagus. (See “ Radiation therapy for cancer of the esophagus” for more details.)

Chemotherapy and targeted therapy

When used to help treat advanced esophageal cancer, chemotherapy and targeted therapy can both be considered a type of palliative therapy because they are intended to help slow the growth of the cancer and relieve symptoms from the cancer, as opposed to trying to cure it.

Pain management

Pain control is an important concern for people with cancer. There are many ways to treat cancer pain. People with cancer should let their cancer care team know right away if they are in pain. The cancer care team can provide medicines and other palliative treatments to relieve pain and other symptoms. Learn more about managing cancer-related pain in our document Guide to Controlling Cancer Pain.

Nutritional support

Nutrition is another concern for many patients with esophagus cancer. The cancer or its treatment might affect how you swallow and what you are able to eat. A team of doctors and nutritionists can work with you to provide nutritional supplements and information about your individual nutritional needs.

Some people having trouble swallowing and may need to have a feeding tube, usually called a jejunostomy tube (or J-tube), put into the first part of the small intestine. This is done through a small hole in the skin over the abdomen during a minor operation. A J-tube lets liquid nutrition be put directly into the small intestine to help prevent weight loss and improve nutrition. Less often, the tube is placed into the stomach instead. This is known as a gastrostomy tube or G-tube.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: March 20, 2014 Last Revised: February 4, 2016

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