Esophageal cancer is diagnosed based on symptoms of esophageal cancer. The signs and symptoms of esophageal cancer experienced help in describing a medical problem. Some of the common symptoms of esophageal cancer include pain behind the breastbone or in the throat, difficulty and pain with swallowing, mainly when eating meat, bread, or raw vegetables. As the tumor grows, it can block the pathway to the stomach, cause coughing or hoarseness, pressure or burning in the chest, frequent choking on food, indigestion or heartburn, unexplained weight loss, and vomiting.
Signs and Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer
People with esophageal cancer can experience the following signs and symptoms 1. A symptom is something that only the person experiencing it can identify and describe, like nausea, fatigue, or pain. A sign is something that people can identify and measure, like a fever, rash or an elevated pulse. Together, symptoms and signs can help describe a medical problem. Sometimes, people with esophageal cancer do not have any of the signs and symptom described below 2. Or, the cause of a sign and symptom may be a medical condition that is not cancer.
- Pain behind the breastbone or in the throat
- Difficulty and pain with swallowing, mainly when eating meat, bread, or raw vegetables. As the tumor grows, it can block the pathway to the stomach. Even liquid may be painful to swallow.
Other symptoms of esophageal cancer
In addition to difficulty swallowing, the patient may experience other esophageal cancer symptoms, either alone or in combination with other signs.
Changes in appetite
Some patients with difficulty swallowing alter their food intake to prevent feelings of discomfort. When swallowing is painful, patients may eat less, take smaller bites or switch to liquid foods. Cancer may also cause metabolic changes or decreased appetite.
Chest pain when swallowing
A tumor may cause a pressure or burning sensation in the middle of the chest. With cancer, the chest pain is usually chronic, meaning it doesn’t go away. Sharp, temporary pains may also occur when swallowing food or liquid. Doctors generally use tests to determine whether chest pain is from cancer or something else.
Indigestion and heartburn
Heartburn is another way patients may describe chest pain. A tumor in the esophagus may cause discomfort in the upper abdomen.
An esophageal tumor may squeeze up against the vocal cords, causing changes in the patient’s voice. In some cases, the vocal cord nerves stop working completely, a result of a condition called laryngeal nerve palsy.
An esophageal tumor may cause excess mucus or bleeding, which may lead to a persistent cough. In rare cases, the tumor may create a connection between the esophagus and the trachea (the tube that takes air to the lungs). Called a tracheoesophageal fistula (TEF), this abnormal airway may also present as a cough.
A tumor may cause bleeding in the throat, which makes its way into the stomach. If the patient vomits, he or she may notice some blood. The blood may also cause stool to turn black. Heavy bleeding may cause anemia, or low red blood cell counts, and fatigue due to blood loss.
Symptoms of metastatic esophageal cancer
Esophageal cancer may spread to nearby tissue or even distant parts of the body (metastasis). If cancer metastasizes into areas such as the bones, lungs or liver, different symptoms may develop.
- Cancer that spreads to the surrounding nerves may cause nerve paralysis, hoarseness, spine pain or hiccups.
- Cancer that spreads to the bones may cause bone pain or aches.
- Cancer that spreads to the lungs may cause shortness of breath or chest pain.
- Cancer that spreads to the liver may cause abdominal pain or swelling.
- Cancer that spreads to the brain may cause headaches or seizures.
- 1.Short M, Burgers K, Fry V. Esophageal Cancer. Am Fam Physician. 2017;95(1):22-28. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28075104
- 2.Lagergren J, Bergström R, Lindgren A, Nyrén O. Symptomatic Gastroesophageal Reflux as a Risk Factor for Esophageal Adenocarcinoma. N Engl J Med. Published online March 18, 1999:825-831. doi:10.1056/nejm199903183401101