Early symptoms of esophagus cancer

Though early-stage esophageal cancer is usually asymptomatic, when there are early symptoms of esophagus cancer they tend to focus on the mouth and throat of the affected person, and the activities and functions directly or indirectly related to those areas, such as eating, swallowing and digesting. This is because this type of cancer generally starts in the cells lining the interior of the esophagus, which is a long (about 10’’), muscular, hollow tube that conveys food from the mouth to the stomach. Although it can occur anywhere along the esophagus, esophageal cancer is more common in the lower part of the tube.

Some signs and early symptoms of esophageal cancer include:

·         Dysphagia.

·         Losing weight for no apparent reason.    

·         Chest pain, pressure or burning.    

·         Fatigue.  

·         Frequent choking while eating.    

·         Indigestion or heartburn.    

·         Coughing or hoarseness.

·         Throwing up.

·         Pain behind the breastbone or in the throat.


The main symptom of esophageal cancer is a condition known as dysphagia, which is a word that comes from the Greek language and means difficulty swallowing. What’s more, dysphagia is sometimes considered a condition by itself, and has its own set of symptoms, including:


·         Pain when swallowing.

·         Inability to swallow.

·         Feeling that food gets stuck in the throat or chest.

·         Drooling.

·         Hoarseness.

·         Regurgitation.

·         Heartburn.

·         Acid reflux.

·         Unaccountable weight loss.

·         Coughing or gagging while swallowing.


In children dysphagia may lead to:


·         Lack of attention during meals.

·         Tensing of the body during feeding.

·         Refusal to eat foods of different textures.

·         Feeding that exceeds 30 minutes.

·         Breastfeeding difficulties.

·         Leakage of liquid or food from the mouth.

·         Coughing or choking during meals.

·         Spitting up or throwing up during meals.

·         Breathing problems when drinking or eating.

·         Loss of weight.

·         Slow weight gain.

·         Slow growth.

·         Recurrent pneumonia.


It’s true that dysphagia may be caused by other conditions than cancer, like achalasia, diffuse spasm, esophageal stricture, foreign bodies, esophageal ring, GERD, eosinophilic esophagitis, and sclerodema. And though it can cause malnutrition and dehydration and respiratory problems, it can also be managed with several treatments, including food thickeners and feeding tubes. However, it could also be the tip of the esophageal cancer iceberg. That in turn can lead to more complications down the line, such as:


·         Obstruction of the esophagus.

·         Cancer pain.

·         Bleeding in the esophagus.

·         Serious weight loss.

·         Coughing.


It almost doesn’t sound that bad, as far as cancers go, that is. In particular if we take into account the fact that esophageal cancer is more common in Asia and Africa that it is in the United States of America. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that this cancer isn’t possible, or even deadly.


Esophageal cancer

·         Estimated diagnoses in 2014

·         Estimated deaths in 2014







Adapted from the American Cancer Society's Cancer Facts & Figures 2014.

As you can see, men are more at risk of esophageal cancer than women. In fact, this cancer is the 7th most common cause of death in men. Other risk factors include:

  • Heavy alcohol drinking.
  • Smoking or chewing tobacco.
  • Being African-American.
  • Being 45 -70 years old.
  • Being overweight.
  • Drinking very hot liquids.
  • Accidentally drinking lye from cleansing products.
  • Inadvertently eating foods preserved in lye.
  • Not eating enough fruits and vegetables.
  • Other conditions like achalasia, GERD, Barrett’s esophagus, and HPV.

Several of those risk factors are associated with chronic irritation of the esophagus, which is thought to contribute to the genetic mutations that lead to esophageal cancer. In addition to the early symptoms of esophagus cancer, there are several tests that can be used to establish a diagnosis of esophageal cancer. Some tests are quite common, like MRI imaging, CAT and PET scans, and biopsies. Others, however, are more esophagus-specific:

  • Esophagram. X-rays of the esophagus are taken after the patient has swallowed a liquid called barium which makes any irregularity easier to spot.
  • Upper endoscopy. A doctors explores the esophagus lining of a sedated patient with an endoscope; a tube with a light and a camera on one end.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound. Usually performed at the same time as an upper endoscopy, it employs ultrasound waves to determine the size, location, and range of a tumor.
  • Bronchoscopy. Akin to an upper endoscopy, used to see if the tumor is located in the upper two-thirds of the esophagus to find out if the tumor is growing into the airways.

The causes of esophageal cancer have not been firmly established, but these tests can help to detect a tumor early, as well as help determine the type of cancer being dealt with, which can in turn be useful when discussing treatment alternatives. 


Type of esophageal cancer:



Most common treatment

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy.


Squamous cell cancer

Chemoradiotherapy (combination of chemotherapy and radiation). Surgery depending on the results of chemoradiothrapy.


Surgical options, if deemed necessary, include removing very small tumors with an endoscope during early stages of the cancer; removing a portion of the esophagus, which is called an esophagectomy; and removing part of the esophagus and the upper portion of the stomach, known as a esophagogastrectomy. Furthermore, there may be supportive care surgery to relieve symptoms or enable the patient to eat, such as relieving esophageal obstruction or inserting a feeding tube directly into the stomach or intestine.

We have all heard or used the expression ‘a lump in one’s throat,’ more than likely in a figurative manner. Esophageal cancer is not only a literal lump in one’s throat, but it is also the throat lump from hell. The good news is that you can decrease the risk of developing esophagus cancer by doing and not doing a few things you should or shouldn’t be doing anyway, such as:

·         Drinking moderately, or not at all.

·         Quitting smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and snuff.

·         Adding fruits and vegetables to your regular diet.

·         Maintaining a healthy weight.