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What are the symptoms of esophageal cancer?

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Quick Answer

Pain or difficulty swallowing are common symptoms of esophageal cancer, according to WebMD. Patients may experience hoarseness, coughing or pain in the center of the chest. Other symptoms may include heartburn, indigestion and unintended weight loss.

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Full Answer

The most typical symptom of esophageal cancer is trouble swallowing, the American Cancer Society states. As tumors grow larger, patients feel as if food is caught in their throats, and they experience choking sensations. Certain individuals react to this unconsciously by taking smaller bites and chewing more slowly. Sometimes patients substitute soft foods for items that are more difficult to swallow, such as bread and meat.

Chest pain appears when food is unable to pass smoothly through the esophagus due to the tumor's presence, reports ACS. Patients usually feel discomfort, pressure or burning near the breastbone shortly after swallowing. Because they have trouble eating, people with esophageal cancer often lose weight. This also happens because cancer leads to decreased appetite but a higher metabolism.

Esophageal cancer typically begins in the cells lining the inside of the esophagus, explains Mayo Clinic. Although it can develop anywhere in the esophagus, it most often occurs in the lower area of the esophagus in patients in the United States. As of 2015, the cause of esophageal cancer is unknown.

To diagnose esophageal cancer, a doctor performs a physical examination, considers symptoms and orders tests, WebMD explains. A barium swallow X-ray allows the doctor to clearly see the esophagus because it has been coated with a special liquid. A thin, lighted tube, an endoscope, is sometimes fed down the patient's throat so the doctor can observe the esophagus. At this point, the doctor takes tissue samples and checks them microscopically for cancer cells.

Treatment for esophageal cancer depends on a patient's overall health, the type of cells involved in the cancer and the stage of the cancer, according to Mayo Clinic. Surgical treatment options include the removal of small tumors, the removal of part of the esophagus, and the removal of part of the esophagus as well as the upper portion of the stomach. In the event of an esophageal obstruction, doctors can insert a metal stent to hold the esophagus open. Doctors may also recommend chemotherapy or radiation therapy to kill cancer cells.

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