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Esophageal cancer

Diagnosis of esophageal cancer

Standard tools used to identify and evaluate esophageal cancer include:

  • Endoscopy: Using a tool called an endoscope, which is a small tube with an attached video camera inserted through your throat, your doctor can examine your esophagus.
  • Biopsy: Your doctor takes a small sample of any suspected cancerous growths.
  • Imaging tests: PET scans, CT scans, and ultrasounds are typically used after diagnosis to measure the extent to which esophageal cancer has or has not spread.
  • Lymph node tests: These are to look for potential metastases (areas where cancer has spread).

If your doctor determines that cancer cells are growing in your esophagus, the next step is to evaluate how advanced the cancer is and whether it has spread to other areas of the body.

Cancer staging is indicated by Roman numerals 0 to IV. Stages indicate both the size of the tumor and how far cancer cells have spread. As cancer progresses, it may begin to penetrate deeper into the lining and muscle of the esophagus, spread to nearby lymph nodes, or spread to more distant areas within the body. 

For example, stage 0 esophageal cancer means that cancer is only present in the very top levels of the esophagus lining, and it has not spread anywhere outside the esophagus. By stage IV, cancer has spread throughout the body and is considered advanced.


The stage of esophageal cancer largely determines treatment options. Unfortunately, esophageal cancer usually only becomes apparent in advanced stages, making it harder to treat.

Stage 0, I, and II esophageal cancers can often be surgically removed. When cancers can be removed, they are called “resectable,” meaning that they can be totally excised. Some stage III cancers can also be treated surgically if the cancer has not spread to the heart, spine, trachea, or other vital structures.

The primary treatment for all stages is a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. These treatments slow or halt the growth of cancerous cells, regardless of where they are located in the body.

Dignity Health provides complete care for esophageal cancer. Find a Doctor to learn more.


After recovering from esophageal cancer, you will likely need to attend regular screenings with your doctor to monitor your condition and make sure the cancer doesn’t return.

Your doctor will let you know the best schedule for these appointments, as well as any follow-up care for surgery or other cancer treatments.

Many survivors of esophageal cancer experience some treatment side effects, such as weight loss due to difficulty swallowing. Your doctor can recommend dietary strategies if you are losing weight or are having trouble eating.

Your doctor can also recommend ways to manage any discomfort after surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. There are many options to control or eliminate pain in the throat and windpipe following cancer treatment.

There are also some lifestyle changes you can make to ease recovery, such as:

  • Limiting or eliminating the consumption of alcohol
  • Engaging in regular physical activity
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eating a healthy diet high in vegetables and fruits
  • Resting when you need to
  • Eliminating all tobacco use, if you haven’t already  

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.