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Learning About Esophageal Cancer

Location of esophagus and stomach

What is it?

Esophageal cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in your esophagus. That's the hollow tube that connects your throat to your stomach. The cancer most often starts in the cells that line the inside of the esophagus.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of this type of cancer can include:

  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Feeling like there's something stuck in your throat.
  • Pain when you swallow.
  • Weight loss.
  • Pain behind your breastbone (sternum).
  • Hoarseness and coughing.
  • Stomach upset (indigestion) and heartburn.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you questions about your and your family's past health. He or she will do a physical examination.

Your doctor likely will do an endoscopy. This is a test that lets your doctor look at the inside of your esophagus. The doctor uses a thin, lighted tube (endoscope) that bends. He or she uses it to look at your stomach and the first part of your small intestine. The doctor can also use the scope to take a sample of tissue for study (a biopsy).

You may need more tests. These tests may include a CT scan, a PET scan, or an ultrasound of your esophagus.

How is it treated?

For early cancer, your doctor may recommend an endoscopy. He or she will guide tools down the throat to remove the cancer. If the cancer has moved into a deeper layer of tissue, your doctor may suggest surgery. Surgery can be used to remove that part of the esophagus. The surgery is called an esophagectomy. It's often done after treatment with chemotherapy given with or without radiation. Your treatment plan will be created based on your general health as well as your wishes.

Both during and after treatment, you may need a feeding tube. The tube helps you get the nutrition your body needs. While your esophagus heals, liquid food is moved into your stomach through the tube.

Your treatment team may include a dietitian. Cancer, and the treatment for it, can make it hard to eat. It also may be hard to stay at a healthy weight. Your dietitian can help you make meal plans and shopping lists. You'll learn about healthy eating habits and how to stay at a healthy weight.

What are some other things to think about?

  • Some tumours are aggressive and need treatment right away. But most cancer grows slowly enough that you can take a little time to find out more about your cancer as you decide about treatment.
  • Ask any questions you might have. You can talk to your doctor, nurses, counsellors, and other advisors.
  • Talk to family, friends, and supporters. Get the kinds of help you need.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to

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