Esophageal cancer begins in the esophagus, a long, 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.
What are the 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. Usually, the first sign is difficulty swallowing (dysphagia). At first, the dysphagia may be mild, causing a sensation that food is stuck in the throat. Then, as the tumor grows, it may eventually cause bouts of coughing and choking.
Other early signs of esophageal cancer can include:
- Loss of appetite
- Unintended weight loss
- Pain, pressure or burning sensations in the chest
Because most early-stage esophageal cancer symptoms are nonspecific and also 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.
What are the symptoms of advanced esophageal cancer?
If esophageal cancer spreads 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 invades the laryngeal nerves
- Back pain, if the cancer invades 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 invades the bones
Receive nationally ranked care at Moffitt Cancer Center
If you would like to discuss your esophageal cancer symptoms with an expert in the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center, you can request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing our new patient registration form online. Florida’s top cancer hospital is changing the patient care model for the better, and your diagnosis is our top priority. You can count on a rapid response from us, and if you are ultimately diagnosed with esophageal cancer, we will support you with personalized treatment and compassionate care every step of the way.