Esophageal Cancer

Expert esophageal cancer care focused on your needs.

Patient being evaluated for esophageal or upper GI cancer

What you need to know about esophageal cancer

Esophageal cancer begins in the tissues of the esophagus — the muscular tube that moves food and liquid from your throat to your stomach. There are two main types of esophogeal cancer:

  • Adenocarcinoma are cancers that start in glandular cells. It starts at the bottom of the esophagus as it joins the stomach. This type may be related to diseases such as reflux disease. Most esophogeal cancers are adenocarcinoma.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma is typically located in the middle of the esophagus and can be related to smoking and alcohol use.

Esophageal cancer makes up about 1 percent of all cancers in the U.S. Rates of the cancer are stable, but have dropped slightly in the past 10 years. The good news is that better treatments are improving survival rates. Statistics show that about five years after diagnosis, 20 percent of those with esophageal cancer are counted as survivors. This is a huge improvement from the 1960s and 1970s when only about 5 percent survived.

This type of cancer is more common in men than in woman. The lifetime risk for men is one in 132. For women it’s one in 455.

Symptoms of esophageal cancer

Unfortunately, it is difficult to detect early signs or symptoms of esophageal cancer. Sometimes it isn’t caught until it is advanced, and symptoms such as pain or difficulty swallowing solid foods are present. 

Early symptoms of esophageal cancer might be:

  • Trouble swallowing. Swallowing dry solid foods, such as meat, bread, or raw vegetables may be especially hard.
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Pressure or burning in your chest (behind your breastbone)
  • A feeling that food is stuck in your throat
  • Weight loss
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Frequent choking

As esophageal cancer gets worse and the tumor grows, symptoms can become more severe. You may have:

  • Trouble swallowing liquids
  • Trouble swallowing saliva
  • Hoarseness
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Black stool, which is caused by bleeding in the esophagus

Many of these symptoms can be caused by other health problems. But it’s important to see a healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare provider can tell if you have esophageal cancer or some other problem that may need to be treated.

Esophageal and upper GI cancer specialists

Legacy Cancer Institute, located in Portland, OR, ranks among the nation’s best cancer programs. We have a team of esophageal and upper GI cancer specialists who work together to diagnose and develop a personalized treatment plan for you. Find the right provider and treatment close to home. Learn more about our expert upper GI cancer care team.

Legacy Cancer Institute is accredited as an integrated network cancer program by the American College of surgeons Commission on Cancer (CoC). Learn more about our quality cancer care.

Next steps after an esophageal cancer diagnosis

Being told you have esophageal cancer can be scary. You may have many questions. There are many people on your healthcare team who can help.

At this point, you’ve likely had a physical exam and reviewed your health history with your provider. You may have also had a biopsy to confirm your diagnosis. Following a diagnosis of esophageal cancer, you may have more tests to help your doctor understand your cancer stage.

Cancer staging includes identifying where the cancer is located, if or where it has spread, and if it is affecting other parts of your body. Knowing the stage allows your doctor to develop your personalized treatment plan.

Some tests your doctor may now recommend include:

  • CT scan, MRI or positron emission tomography (PET): Imaging technology to look inside the body.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS): An endoscope (an instrument with a light and a lens) is inserted in the mouth and uses sound waves to make a picture of tissues (a sonogram). A biopsy can often be taken this way.
  • Laparoscopy: A surgical procedure that looks at organs inside the abdomen to find abnormal areas. During the surgery, small incisions are made and a lighted tool is used to view the area. Sometimes, surgeons remove tissue with other instruments.

Customized treatment plans

Because each person and every cancer is different, your doctor uses your tests and exams to come up with an individual treatment plan. How long this takes depends on how complex your case is and your treatment goals. During this time, you build a relationship with your cancer doctors. You become a team for your care.
Open, honest communication can only benefit your relationship with your doctors. These tips can also help you get the most from this partnership:

  • Prepare in advance: Write down your questions ahead of your visits. A few examples of smart questions:
    - Why are we doing these tests?
    - Why do you think this treatment is right?
    - What side effects might this treatment cause?
  • Find trustworthy resources: If you’re looking to learn more, rely on this website or sources your team recommends, so you can make decisions based on good information.
  • Take a partner: Bringing a friend or family member to appointments can make you feel more confident and help you remember important details.

There are several ways to treat esophageal cancer depending on the type and location of the tumor. Options may include surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. People often receive a combination of treatments.

More support

You are not alone. Legacy offers support throughout your cancer journey, as well as care for your emotional, social and spiritual needs.

Nurse navigators
Legacy Cancer Healing Center 
Support groups and classes
Cancer rehabilitation 
Survivorship services