Symptoms may not appear until esophageal cancer is in advanced stages. If you any experience symptoms, do not assume it is due to cancer. Many symptoms can be caused by other, less serious conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or a gastric ulcer. However, it is still important to discuss them with your doctor. Early detection and treatment improve outcomes for both cancer and other health conditions.
Difficulty Swallowing and Weight Loss
The most common symptoms of esophageal cancer are difficulty swallowing (dysphasia) and weight loss. Dysphagia may be with or without pain. As food moves down the esophagus, there may be a sensation that food is stuck. There may be a tight feeling in the chest behind the breastbone or in the throat. Over time, it becomes progressively harder to swallow. Solid foods will be difficult at first, then semi-solid foods, then even liquids will be difficult.
As eating becomes more difficult, the body does not get all the nutrients it needs. Noticeable weight loss occurs in almost all people who have esophageal cancer in a period of months.
Since esophageal cancer is generally found in advanced stages, there may be other symptoms in addition to the ones listed above. These may include:
- Hoarseness —A nerve in the chest that controls your vocal cords may stop working as the cancer grows, resulting in a hoarse voice. This is called laryngeal nerve palsy.
- Chronic cough —From lung irritation or irritation from acid reflux.
- Hiccups —As the cancer spreads into the chest, it may press on a nerve that causes hiccups.
- Aspiration —Food, fluids, and stomach acids can be inhaled into the lungs. Aspiration causes violent coughing. A complication of aspiration is pneumonia.
- Pain —Swallowing may become painful over time. Tumors that press on a nerves may cause pain in the abdomen, chest, or lower back. Metastatic cancer can cause bone pain.
- Bleeding —Bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract may make stool appear black and tarry. It is also possible to vomit blood.
- Anemia —Blood loss reduces the number of red blood cells causing intense fatigue and abnormally low energy.
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Esophagus cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003098-pdf.pdf. Accessed January 3, 2017.
General information about esophageal cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/esophageal/patient/esophageal-treatment-pdq#section/all. Updated July 19, 2016. Accessed January 3, 2017.
Last reviewed February 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD Last Updated: 3/10/2021