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esophageal cancer patient meets with nurse

Esophageal cancer begins in the esophagus, a tube-like organ that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. Composed of several layers of muscle, the esophagus contracts in rhythmic waves to propel swallowed food and liquids down the throat and into the digestive tract.

There are two main types of esophageal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, which develops in the moist tissues (mucosa) that line the esophagus, and adenocarcinoma, which develops in the tissues that aid swallowing. Both types are relatively uncommon and occur when healthy cells undergo abnormal changes that cause them to grow and divide very rapidly. The resulting excess cells then bind together and form tumors in the esophagus.

Early warning signs of esophageal cancer

In many cases, esophageal cancer does not cause noticeable symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage. The initial symptoms are usually related to swallowing, eating, drinking or digestion.

What does esophageal cancer feel like?

Usually, difficulty swallowing solid foods (dysphagia) is the first sign of esophageal cancer that can be felt. In the beginning, the dysphagia may be mild, creating a sensation that food is stuck in the throat. Then, as the tumor grows, it may eventually cause bouts of choking and coughing.

Other early signs of esophageal cancer that can be felt include:

  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pain, pressure or burning sensations in the chest
  • Weakness and fatigue

What does esophageal cancer look like?

Because esophageal cancer can interfere with swallowing, eating, drinking and digestion, it may cause visible weight loss.

Esophageal symptom, heartburn

Symptoms of advanced esophageal cancer

If esophageal cancer travels beyond the esophagus, it may cause other symptoms, such as:

  • Hiccups, if the cancer invades the phrenic nerves or the diaphragm
  • Chronic coughing and vocal hoarseness, if the cancer spreads to the laryngeal nerves
  • Back pain, if the cancer enters the membrane that encloses the heart (pericardium) or the membrane between the lungs (mediastinum)
  • Bone pain and high blood calcium levels (hypercalcemia), if the cancer metastasizes to the bones

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about esophageal cancer signs and symptoms

The following FAQs-related articles provide additional information about esophageal cancer signs and symptoms:

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

Because many warning signs of esophageal cancer are nonspecific and associated with other medical conditions, it is best to promptly discuss any unusual changes with a general physician or specialist who can provide an accurate diagnosis. This is especially important for individuals who have Barrett’s esophagus, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or long-term heartburn, all of which can change the cells in the esophagus and increase the risk of esophageal cancer.

If you would like to discuss your esophageal cancer symptoms with an expert in the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at Moffitt, you can request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488 or submitting a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.