Upper Gastrointestinal Multidisciplinary Clinic
Lifespan Cancer Institute

Signs and Symptoms of Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms in its early stages. Diagnosis in people without symptoms is usually discovered accidentally, because of tests run for other medical problems. Although the early signs of esophageal cancer are difficult to detect, it is important to recognize the small signs your body gives you that might indicate esophageal cancer.

Early symptoms of esophageal cancer:

Trouble swallowing

This is the most common and easily recognizable symptom of esophageal cancer. It may feel like food is stuck in the throat or the chest, or you may even choke on the food. This symptom is often mild in its early stages but gradually worsens as the disease progresses. 

Chest pain

Someone with esophageal cancer may experience pain in the middle of the chest that feels like pressure or burning. This discomfort can often be confused with other problems, such as heartburn, so it is difficult to recognize it as a symptom. Chest pain may be felt a few seconds after swallowing food, as it is having difficulty getting past a tumor.

Weight loss

About half of esophageal cancer patients lose weight without trying to. This is a result of difficult swallowing keeping them from eating enough to maintain their weight. When swallowing becomes painful, people often begin changing their dieting habits without realizing it. They may take smaller bites or chew food more carefully. As the cancer grows larger, they may begin eating softer foods and avoiding dry foods like bread and meat, as these are especially difficult to swallow. Other factors that contribute to weight loss include a decreased appetite and increased metabolism from the cancer. 

Other symptoms:

As esophageal cancer gets worse, symptoms can become more severe. You may experience the following:

  • Trouble swallowing liquids
  • Trouble swallowing saliva
  • Hoarseness
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Bone pain
  • Bleeding into the esophagus, which will cause stool to turn black and a low red blood cell count, otherwise known as anemia. 


Can esophageal cancer be found early?

Typically, cancer screens are used to look for cancer in patients who have no symptoms of the disease. However, this process is not currently practiced in the United States for this type of cancer because no test has been shown to lower the risk of death from esophageal cancer in patients with an average risk. However, patients who are at a high risk of esophageal cancer, such as those with Barret’s esophagus, are followed closely by their physician to look for early cancers. 

When to see your health care provider

Make an appointment with your physician if these symptoms persist for several weeks. Many of these symptoms can be caused by other health problems. But it’s important to see your health care provider if you have these symptoms. Only a health care provider can tell if you have esophageal cancer.

If you have been diagnosed with Barret’s esophagus, a precancerous condition that increases your risk of esophageal cancer, ask your physician what signs to watch for that may indicate that your condition is worsening. 

Learn more about the Upper Gastrointestinal Multidisciplinary Clinic