Esophageal cancer can cause many symptoms – especially in its later stages. Warning signs are typically mild and nonspecific at onset and progressively worsen over time. Very few patients are diagnosed before symptoms arise.
More than 90 percent of patients with esophageal cancer experience dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing. This is often one of the first symptoms to develop. Some patients feel as though food is stuck in their throats or chests, while others have choking or coughing fits when they try to swallow. As the tumors get larger, this complication can get worse. Severe dysphagia can even make it difficult to swallow liquids.
Other esophageal cancer symptoms include:
- Pain, discomfort or burning sensations in the middle of the chest (behind the breastbone)
- Decreased appetite and/or unintentional weight loss
- Bleeding in the esophagus and/or bloody stool
- Indigestion and heartburn
If the cancer spreads throughout the body, it can cause several additional symptoms. These include:
- Hiccups (caused by the cancer invading the phrenic nerves or the diaphragm)
- Hoarseness and/or a chronic cough (caused by the cancer invading the laryngeal nerves)
- Back pain (caused by the cancer invading the pericardium or mediastinum)
- Hypercalcemia and bone pain (caused by the cancer invading the bones)
- Respiratory fistulas, which can, in turn, cause a chronic cough and/or fever
Because the initial symptoms of esophageal cancer are fairly nonspecific, a physician may initially attribute them to a less serious condition. However, the complications do tend to progress quickly, and a visit to an oncologist who specializes in esophageal cancer can help accelerate an accurate diagnosis.
If you’ve been experiencing symptoms of esophageal cancer, Moffitt Cancer Center can help you determine the cause. No referral is necessary to make an appointment; simply call 1-888-MOFFITT or complete the new patient registration form online.