Palliative Therapy for Esophageal Cancer

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 Endoscopic Treatments for Esophageal Cancer. 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 might 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 Esophageal Cancer 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. See Cancer Pain to learn more. 

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. Ch 45 - Cancer of the esophagus. In: DeVita VT, Hellman S, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott-Williams & Wilkins; 2015.

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

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