Esophageal Cancer

What is esophageal cancer?

Esophageal cancer starts in the cells that line the esophagus.

What increases my risk for esophageal cancer?

  • Alcohol

  • Tobacco, including both smoking and chewing tobacco

  • High-fat foods such as in fried foods, chips, and some pork or beef dishes

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (heartburn), because stomach acid moves up the esophagus

What are the signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer?

You may not have any signs and symptoms at first. You may develop more than one of the following over time:

  • Difficult or painful swallowing

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Chest or stomach pain or discomfort

  • Bloody bowel movements or diarrhea

  • Loss of appetite

  • Unplanned weight loss

How is esophageal cancer diagnosed?

You may need more than one of the following tests:

  • Barium swallow: This is an x-ray of the esophagus and stomach. You will drink a white chalky liquid called barium to help the esophagus show up better on an x-ray.

  • CT scan: This test is also called a CAT scan. An x-ray machine uses a computer to take pictures of your esophagus and other organs. The pictures may show cancer and if it has spread. You may be given a dye before the pictures are taken to help caregivers see the pictures better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye.

  • MRI: This scan uses powerful magnets and a computer to take pictures of your esophagus and other organs. An MRI may show if the cancer has spread. You may be given dye to help the pictures show up better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the caregiver if you have any metal in or on your body.

  • Endoscopy: This test may also be called an EGD. Your caregiver uses a small tube with a camera on the end to look at the lining of your esophagus, stomach, and part of your small intestine.

  • Biopsy: Your caregiver may need to take a sample of tissue from your esophagus to find out if you have esophageal cancer.

How is esophageal cancer treated?

You may need more than one of the following:

  • Surgery: Surgery to remove part of your esophagus or lymph nodes may help stop the cancer from spreading.

  • Chemotherapy: This medicine, often called chemo, is used to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may also be used to shrink the tumor or lymph nodes before surgery. Once the tumor is smaller, surgery can be done to remove the cancer.

  • Radiation therapy: This therapy is used to kill cancer cells with x-rays or gamma rays. Radiation may be given after surgery to kill cancer cells that were not removed. It may be given alone or with chemotherapy.

What is the risk of esophageal cancer?

You may bleed more than expected or get an infection after surgery. After surgery, you may get a blood clot in your leg or arm. The clot may travel to your heart or brain and cause life-threatening problems, such as a heart attack or stroke. Treatment may cause pain when you eat or swallow liquids. If the cancer is not treated, it can spread to other parts of your body and be life-threatening.

How can I care for myself during treatment?

  • Get plenty of rest: This will help in your recovery. Return to your activities slowly and do more as you feel stronger. Rest as needed. Contact your caregiver if you are not able to sleep.

  • Eat healthy foods: Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. This may help you feel better during treatment and decrease side effects. You may need to change what you eat during treatment. A nutritionist may help to plan the best meals and snacks for you.



  • Drink liquids as directed: Ask how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you. If you have nausea or diarrhea from cancer treatment, extra liquids may help decrease your risk of dehydration.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.

  • You vomit multiple times and cannot keep food or liquids down.

  • You feel you cannot cope with your illness.

  • You are bleeding from your mouth or nose.

  • You have pain that does not decrease or go away after you take your pain medicine.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • Your arm or leg feels warm, tender, and painful. It may look swollen and red.

  • You suddenly feel lightheaded and short of breath.

  • You have chest pain when you take a deep breath or cough. You may cough up blood.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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