Esophageal (Oesophageal) Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

What are the symptoms of oesophageal cancer? We tell you what signs to look out for and who is most at risk.

What is Oesophageal Cancer? 

The oesophagus is the long, hollow tube that runs from your throat to your stomach, which transports food to the stomach to be digested. The wall of the oesophagus comprises of several layers of tissue, including the mucous membrane, muscle and connective tissue. The oesophagus and stomach are part of the upper gastrointestinal (digestive) system.

Oesophageal cancer usually begins in the cells lining the inside of the oesophagus before spreading outwards through the other layers as it grows. 

The two most common forms of oesophageal cancer are:
Squamous cell carcinoma (epidermoid carcinoma): squamous cells are thin, flat cells lining the oesophagus. This cancer is mostly found in the upper and middle part of the oesophagus, but can also occur anywhere along the oesophagus.
Adenocarcinoma: glandular cells are secretory cells lining the oesophagus and they produce and release fluids such as mucus. This cancer usually starts in the lower part of the oesophagus, closer to the stomach.

Who Is at Risk of Oesophageal Cancer?

Heavy drinkers 
Habitual smokers
Those with gastrooesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Those with Barrett's oesophagus, a condition in which cells lining the lower part of the oesophagus change into abnormal cells that resemble stomach or intestinal lining, often as a result of persistent acid reflux
Obese patients, who have higher tendency of acid reflux
Those with oesophageal strictures developing after ingesting corrosive agents
Sufferers of achalasia, a condition in which the smooth muscle fibres of the oesophagus cannot relax

If you think you or a loved one may be at risk of oesophageal cancer, seek medical advice immediately. 

Oesophageal Cancer Symptoms 

Experiencing pain or difficulty when swallowing
Unexplained weight loss
Chest pain, pressure, or burning
Indigestion and heartburn
Coughing or hoarseness

Consult your doctor should you experience any of the above symptoms. 

How to Prevent Oesophageal Cancer

Quit smoking
Consume alcohol in moderation
Maintain a healthy weight
Eat more fruits and vegetables

Find out more about the different stages of oesophageal cancer below.


  • Stage I: The cancer occurs in the superficial layers of cells lining the oesophagus
  • Stage II: The cancer has progressed to deeper layers of the oesophagus lining and may have spread to nearby lymph nodes
  • Stage III: The cancer has spread to the deepest layers of the oesophagus wall and to nearby tissues or lymph nodes
  • Stage IV: The cancer has spread to other parts of the body

Getting an Oesophageal Cancer Diagnosis

If you experience any of the symptoms mentioned, your doctor may refer you to a specialist after asking about your personal and family medical history and conducting a physical examination. 

Tests to diagnose oesophageal cancer:

In the event that you are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, your doctor will then work to determine the stage of the cancer. Staging the cancer helps determine the most suitable treatment options. 

Oesophageal Cancer Treatment

There are different treatments available for oesophageal cancer depending on the stage, type and position of the cancer. Factors other than the stage of cancer that might have an impact on your treatment options include your age, overall health, and your own preference. The three main types of oesophageal cancer treatment include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

Surgery for Oesophageal Cancer

Surgery is the most common oesophageal cancer treatment option. 

Endoscopy Surgery for Removal of Very Small Tumours 

For very early stage oesophageal cancer, surgery may be performed to remove tumours and some of the surrounding tissue. Surgery for very early-stage cancers can be performed using an endoscope which is passed down your throat and into your oesophagus.


During esophagectomy, the portion of the oesophagus containing the tumour and nearby lymph nodes are removed. The remaining oesophagus is then reconnected to the stomach.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to help kill cancer cells and shrink tumours. Chemotherapy for oesophageal cancer treatment may be given alone or combined with radiotherapy before or after surgery. It also tends to be the treatment of choice for patients not suitable for surgery. Drugs may be given intravenously (through veins) or orally, spreading throughout the body in the bloodstream. In oesophageal cancer, multiple chemotherapy sessions are usually required.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams to kill cancer cells. Radiation can come from a machine outside your body that aims the beams at your cancer cells (external beam radiation) or it can be placed inside your body near the cancer (brachytherapy).

Radiation therapy is commonly combined with chemotherapy to treat oesophageal cancer. It can be used before or after surgery. Radiation therapy may also be used to relieve complications of advanced oesophageal cancer, for example, in cases where a tumour grows large enough to obstruct food from passing through into the stomach.

Back to Top