What Are the Signs of Esophageal Cancer?
The esophagus is the tube that travels from the throat to the stomach. It carries food from the back of the throat to the stomach. Esophageal cancer can develop in any part of the esophagus. According to the National Cancer Institute, it is rare, but we will discuss the signs of esophageal cancer so you know what to be aware of.
In the U.S., esophageal cancer only makes up about 1% of the cancer cases. Possibly because it is an uncommon type of cancer, many people may not be familiar with the signs and symptoms. The article below takes a look at the most common signs of esophageal cancer.
Top 8 Esophageal Cancer Symptoms
Not everyone who has esophageal cancer develops symptoms at first, but as cancer progresses, some of the top symptoms include those listed below.
1. Trouble Swallowing
One of the main symptoms of esophageal cancer is trouble swallowing. Usually, trouble swallowing occurs due to a narrowing of the esophagus from cancer growing.
It might feel like food is getting stuck in the throat. It can also become painful to swallow. Someone may feel the pain for a few seconds as the food reaches the cancerous growth. If left untreated, trouble swallowing usually becomes worse as cancer grows.
2. Chest Pain
Chest pain can develop, especially in the later stages of esophageal cancer. The pain may be due to a growing mass in the esophagus that puts pressure on the nerves in the chest. Typically, the pain is felt in the middle of the chest.
3. Unintentional Weight Loss
Weight loss is a common symptom of most types of cancers, including esophageal. Because swallowing becomes difficult, it may lead to eating less. Cancer itself can lead to certain metabolic changes, which causes weight loss. It is also common to have a decreased appetite, which usually results in weight loss. According to John Hopkins Medicine, about 50% of people with esophageal cancer have unintended weight loss as a symptom.
Some people also develop a hoarse voice. This symptom develops if the tumor starts to squeeze on the vocal cords. If the tumor becomes large enough, and depending on its position, the vocal cord nerves may stop working.
The tumor in the esophagus may lead to increased mucus, which can cause a cough. One rare complication of esophageal cancer is a tracheoesophageal fistula. The fistula is an abnormal connection between the trachea and esophagus, which can cause coughing.
Similar to chest pain, esophageal cancer can also press on certain nerves and lead to heartburn. It is usually felt as a burning sensation in the upper chest.
If food becomes stuck in the esophagus due to narrowing, it can lead to vomiting. Vomiting is not usually due to nausea, but instead it occurs due to the gag reflex becoming stimulated.
8. Black Stool
If the tumor causes bleeding in the esophagus, it can lead to the blood going into the digestive tract. This can cause blood in the stool, which usually shows up as black stool.
How is It Diagnosed?
Since the above symptoms of esophageal cancer may not occur until the cancer is advanced, it is helpful to know if you have an increased risk. Risk factors for esophageal cancer include:
- Heavy alcohol use.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease.
A diagnosis is made after a physical exam, review of symptoms and certain diagnostic tests. Possible diagnostic tests may include:
- Endoscopy: This involves a tube inserted through the mouth and into the esophagus. The tube has a camera on it to view any tumors.
- Endoscopic ultrasound: The test combines an endoscopic with an ultrasound to check for a growth or any other abnormalities.
- Biopsy: A sample of tissue is removed during an endoscopy. A pathologist examines the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
Treatment for esophageal cancer may depend on the stage of the disease. According to the American Cancer Society, treatment options may include the following:
- Surgery: Different surgical approaches may be recommended depending on the extent of cancer present. A procedure to remove part of the esophagus and the tumor along with some lymph nodes may be an option.
- Nutritional support: If a person has trouble swallowing and eating, additional support may be needed. For example, a nasogastric tube may be placed to assist with nutrition until the tumor is removed. In other cases, for long-term nutritional support, a gastrostomy may be recommended. A gastrostomy involves a surgical opening into the stomach to provide nutrition.
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy may include different types of medication to destroy cancer cells. It may be recommended with or without surgery.
- Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy may also be an option. Radiation is directed at the tumor site to destroy cancer. This may be an option if surgery is not recommended or if the entire tumor was unable to be removed.