What is oesophageal cancer?
What is oesophageal cancer?
The oesophagus is the food pipe that food and drink pass through to get to your stomach.1 Oesophageal cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the oesophagus grow in an uncontrolled way.1,2
Types of oesophageal cancer
There are two main types of oesophageal cancer:1,2
- Adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus - Usually starts in the lower part of the oesophagus or near to where your oesophagus joins up with your stomach. Doctors call this the gastro-oesophageal junction, and most tumours in this area are adenocarcinomas.
- Squamous cell carcinoma of the oesophagus - Mostly found in the upper or middle part of the oesophagus and starts in cells that line the oesophagus.
Oesophageal cancer may not cause symptoms in the early stages.2 Symptoms may include:1,2
- Difficulty swallowing
- Feeling like you are choking when swallowing food or drink
- Heartburn or reflux that won’t go away
- Unexplained weight loss
- Unexplained fatigue
- Black or bloody stools
- Vomit with blood in it
- Discomfort in the upper abdomen, mainly when eating
The above symptoms may be related to other conditions and don’t mean you have oesophageal cancer. It’s recommended to speak with your GP or specialist for further information.1,2
There is no clear reason for oesophageal cancer.1 However, some factors appear to increase the risk. These may include:1,2
- Drinking alcohol or frequently drinking very hot liquids
- Exposure to certain chemical fumes
- Certain medical conditions such as Barrett’s oesophagitis (a severe form of reflux)
- Family history of gastro-oesophageal disorders
Diagnosing oesophageal cancer
Your GP may refer you to a specialist if they are concerned about your symptoms and risk factors for oesophageal cancer.1 Tests to diagnose oesophageal cancer may include:1,2
- Endoscopy – An endoscope is passed into your mouth, down your throat and into your oesophagus to help enable your doctor to look inside. You may be given intravenous sedation, with the aim that you have no memory of the procedure afterwards.
- Biopsy – If any unusual tissue is detected during the endoscopy, a small amount of tissue will be removed so it can be examined under the microscope. This is called a biopsy and may be done at the same time as the endoscopy.
- Endoscopic ultrasound – An endoscope with an ultrasound probe may be passed through your mouth into your oesophagus. It uses soundwaves to create detailed images of the lining and walls of the oesophagus. It is often used after a diagnosis to determine if the cancer may have spread.
- Laparoscopy – This is a surgical procedure that helps enable doctors to determine if the cancer may have spread from the oesophagus to the abdomen.
- Imaging tests – These might include a PET-CT scan to help determine if there are any other tumours or if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
If you are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, your doctor should explain how far your cancer has progressed, and will be able to help you with any further questions. This is known as staging. Oesophageal cancer is commonly staged with the TNM system.1 This abbreviation refers to:1
- Tumour: Your doctors will measure the size of the tumour and how far it has grown into the oesophagus wall
- Nodes: Refers to whether cancer has spread to lymph nodes
- Metastasis: Refers to whether cancer has spread to other parts of the body
Treatment options for oesophageal cancer
The treatment for oesophageal cancer will depend on how advanced it is. Treatment options offered may include:1,2
Chemotherapy - Chemotherapy is an approach to cancer therapy which involves the administration of medicine, usually orally or by injection, which is intended to kill cancer cells or minimise their growth and spread. Chemotherapy can be used in conjunction with other cancer treatments.3
Radiation therapy - Radiation therapy may be offered in the early stages of cancer treatment, or after it has started to spread. There are different radiation therapy techniques which may be suitable for different cancer types at different stages.4
Surgery - There are two types of surgery for oesophageal cancer:1,2
- Endoscopic resection – May be used in the very early stages of the disease. It involves using an endoscope (a long flexible tube) to remove the abnormal cells
- Oesophagectomy – Removes part or all of the oesophagus, depending on where the cancer is and how it has spread. If part of the oesophagus is removed, the remaining portion is joined to the stomach. If the whole oesophagus is removed, the stomach or part of your bowel may be used to replace it.
Understand more about potential side effects
Side effects of cancer treatment
All treatment options for oesophageal cancer may cause side effects. Most are temporary.1 You can ask your doctor for detailed information about the side effects which you may experience with any treatment recommended for you.
Suggestions for how to stay well during treatment
- Aim to maintain a healthy diet - you can speak with your clinician about designing a suitable eating plan during your treatment
- Reach out to support groups and others who have are going through treatment
- It may help to have a daily diary or journal to record things like side effects
- Speak to your doctor about ways you may be able to incorporate gentle exercise into your weekly routine
- Rest where needed - it is important to acknowledge when you are fatigued and have rest days when needed
- Ask for and accept help from family, friends and neighbours
- Be open with employers about your treatment and discuss flexible working options if you need them
Your treatment with GenesisCare
Learn more about treatment with GenesisCare
We understand that a cancer diagnosis may be life-changing for you and those close to you. Our dedicated care team is there to help deliver a personalised care experience by listening, aiming to build your confidence, settling your emotions, and providing evidence-based treatment.
Your care team aims to get to know you as a person. At GenesisCare we believe care should be focused on you, the individual, not the condition. We don't want you to feel alone. Your nursing and oncology team are here to help support you before, during, and after your cancer treatment. We are here to help guide you to get the multidisciplinary support you need from experts such as psychologists, exercise physiologists, physiotherapists, and dietitians.
Other helpful services
Other oesophageal cancer information, resources and support services are available to assist you during your cancer journey. These include:
Cancer Council Australia
13 11 20
Australian Cancer Research Foundation
02 9223 7833
In Australia, we have more than 40 oncology centres in metro and regional Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia.
Our experienced, specialised doctors offer bespoke, dedicated care aiming to provide the best possible clinical outcomes.
This website is provided for information purposes only. Nothing on this website is intended to be used as medical advice, or to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. It should not be used as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.
Any medical procedure or treatment involving the use of radiation carries risks, including skin irritation and associated pain. Before proceeding with treatment, you should discuss the risks and benefits of the treatment with an appropriately qualified health practitioner. Individual treatment outcomes and experiences will vary.
- Cancer Council. Understanding stomach and oesophageal cancers. Available from: https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/oesophageal-cancer/ (accessed October 2023).
- Cancer Australia. Oesophageal cancer. Available from: https://www.canceraustralia.gov.au/oesophagealcancer (accessed October 2023).
- National Cancer Institute, NCI dictionaries, Dictionary of cancer terms, ‘chemotherapy’. Available from: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/chemotherapy (accessed May 2023).
- National Cancer Institute, ‘Radiation therapy’. Available from: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/radiation-therapy (accessed May 2023).
- Cancer Council. Understanding chemotherapy. Available from: https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/cancer-information/cancer-treatment/chemotherapy/ (accessed October 2023).