Radiation Therapy for Esophageal Cancer

If you have esophageal cancer, you might have radiation therapy. It can be used:

  • Before surgery, to shrink the cancer and make it easier to remove
  • After surgery, to kill cancer cells left behind
  • To help with symptoms of advanced esophageal cancer, such as pain, bleeding or difficulty swallowing

Some people have chemotherapy at the same time as radiation therapy.

Types of Radiation Therapy for Esophageal Cancer

There are two types of radiation therapy for esophageal cancer. They are:

  • External beam radiation is the type doctors use when radiation could cure the cancer. External beam radiation comes from a machine that moves around your body, sending a precise dose of radiation to the tumor. Before you have any radiation treatments, the radiation therapy team will personalize your radiation dose and take careful measurements. This helps send radiation directly to the tumor, avoiding healthy tissue. Each treatment lasts just a few minutes once you are in position. You usually have treatments five days a week for several weeks.
  • Brachytherapy is used to relieve symptoms of advanced esophageal cancer. For example, it can shrink tumors to make swallowing easier. In brachytherapy, the doctor places radioactive material very close to the cancer through a small tube called an endoscope. Because the radiation only travels a short distance, it reaches the tumor but has little effect on healthy tissue nearby. The doctor takes out the radioactive material a short time later.

Learn more about radiation therapy at OHSU Knight Cancer Institute

Possible Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

Painful swallowing is a common side effect of radiation therapy for esophageal cancer. It happens because radiation therapy kills some healthy cells in the esophagus. Most people have this side effect shortly after they start treatment, but it usually gets better after treatment is finished.

Other radiation side effects include skin problems, nausea or diarrhea, tiredness and mouth problems, such as a dry mouth or sores in the mouth. Your esophageal cancer team can talk with you about possible side effects and help you find ways to cope with them.