Diagnosing Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer is usually found when people have symptoms. The symptoms of esophageal cancer can include:

  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • A feeling that food is stuck in the chest (some people switch to softer foods because of this feeling)
  • Pain in the throat or back, behind the breastbone or between the shoulder blades
  • Losing a lot of weight without trying
  • Hoarseness or cough that lasts longer than two weeks
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing up blood
  • Heartburn

Your doctor will examine you and ask questions about your health. These will include questions about smoking and other tobacco use, alcohol use, diet and family medical history. You might also have the following tests:

  • Chest X-ray
    A test that uses invisible energy beams to create images of the inside of the body.
  • Barium swallow
    In this test, you swallow a chalky liquid called barium. Then a technician takes X-rays of your esophagus, stomach and the first part of your intestines. The barium makes these organs show up more clearly on the X-rays. Another name for this test is “upper GI series.”
  • Upper endoscopy
    In this test, a doctor uses a thin, flexible tube called an endoscope. The tube goes in through the mouth and throat to the esophagus, stomach and the first part of your intestines. It has a light on the end so the doctor can see inside the body. He or she can also take samples of tissue.
  • CT scan
    A test that uses powerful X-rays and computers to create images of the inside of the body. CT scans are also called CAT scans. They show more detail than regular X-rays.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound
    A test that uses sound waves to create images of the inside of the esophagus and stomach. The endoscope is a thin, flexible tube that goes through the mouth and throat into the esophagus and stomach. The doctor uses the tube to look inside the body and take samples of tissue if necessary.
  • Thoracoscopy and laparoscopy
    These tests use a hollow, lighted tube to look at the lymph nodes inside the chest or stomach area and remove them for more tests.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
    A procedure in which a small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein, and a scanner is used to make detailed, computerized pictures of areas inside the body where the glucose is used. Because cancer cells often use more glucose than normal cells, the pictures can be used to find cancer cells in the body.