By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Esophageal cancer is uncommon but not rare. It is the seventh most common cancer worldwide.
When do symptoms occur?
Early cancer may not cause symptoms. The symptoms progress as the tumor grows and obstructs the esophagus.
It is only when the tumor has grown large enough to narrow your oesophagus by about half its normal width that the main symptom – of difficulty swallowing – will occur. (6)
The main symptom of esophageal cancer is dysphagia, which means difficulty swallowing. This occurs due to the tumor restricting the esophagus.
When swallowing you may feel like the food has got stuck. This is because the muscles of the esophagus are having to try to push the food past the tumor.
As a consequence, you may feel the need to chew your food more, so as to make the pieces smaller so that they can travel down the gullet easier. (6)
You may also experience a burning sensation when trying to swallow food. (7)
Eventually, dysphagia may even apply to swallowing liquids as well as solids. (6)
Common symptoms of esophageal cancer
Other common symptoms of esophageal cancer include (1-6):
- Regurgitation of food and vomiting
- Chest pain and difficulty in swallowing. Since the esophagus lies in the chest, the cancer may mimic heart or lung disease.
The chest pain may not be related to eating. There may be pain in the back as well.
- There may be frequent choking on food
- Pain while swallowing is another common complaint. This is called odynophagia.
- Heart burn and acid reflux
- Vomiting often with evidence of blood in it
- Hoarseness of voice and cough that refuses to go away within 2 weeks
- Throat pain and discomfort
- Progressive weight loss and fatigue due to inability to eat
- There may be respiratory symptoms caused by aspiration or choking on food so that it enters the trachea and the lungs
Do these symptoms always indicate esophageal cancer?
Many of the symptoms outlined above are characteristic of much less serious problems, such as indigestion.
If you have persistent symptoms, however, it is advisable to visit your doctor so that the cause of your symptoms may be determined. (7)
Edited by April Cashin-Garbutt, BA Hons (Cantab)
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