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Diagnosing Esophageal Cancer

At Dignity Health, we combine the latest diagnostic technology with the expertise of our oncologists. Our goal is a precise and accurate diagnosis, so we can plan the most effective course of cancer treatment.

Esophageal Cancer Symptoms

In many cases, symptoms of esophageal cancer do not appear until the disease is in a more advanced stage, making early diagnosis difficult. In addition, like with most diseases, individuals may experience different symptoms. The following are some common symptoms of esophageal cancer:

  • Dysphagia, a condition that causes difficult or painful swallowing, is the most common symptom of esophageal cancer and gives a sensation of having food lodged in the chest. Individuals with dysphagia often modify their diet to include softer foods to help with swallowing.
  • Pain in the throat or back, behind the breastbone or between the shoulder blades
  • Severe weight loss
  • Hoarseness or chronic cough that does not go away within two weeks
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing up blood
  • Persistent heartburn

The symptoms of esophageal cancer may resemble other medical conditions or problems, so it is important to talk to your doctor to ensure a proper diagnosis.

Esophageal Cancer And Barrett's Esophagus

There is no routine screening examination for esophageal cancer. However, if you have Barrett's esophagus, you should undergo regular examinations because you are at greater risk for developing the disease.

Esophageal Cancer Diagnosis At Dignity Health Cancer Institute Of Greater Sacramento

Your doctor will begin the diagnosis by performing a thorough physical examination and asking you about your symptoms and medical history. Be sure to be honest with your doctor about what you are experiencing. Your report of symptoms will be helpful in determining a diagnosis.

Diagnostic Tests For Esophageal Cancer

Diagnostic procedures and tests your doctor may order include:

Chest X-Rays

Your doctor may do a chest X-ray to examine your esophagus.

Upper GI (Gastrointestinal) Series

This is also called an esophagram or a barium swallow. During this test:

  • You drink a contrast liquid called barium.
  • The barium coats the lining of your esophagus.
  • We perform an X-ray; the barium makes it easy to detect any abnormalities.

Upper Endoscopy

This is also called EGD, or esophagogastroduodenoscopy. An endoscope is a thin, flexible tube. Your doctor inserts the endoscope in your mouth and passes it down your esophagus. This allows us to examine your esophagus carefully for signs of cancer or abnormalities.

Computed Tomography (CT) Scan

This is a diagnostic imaging procedure using X-ray and computed technology to produce a detailed image of your body.

Endoscopic Ultrasound

This procedure combines endoscopy with ultrasound. We guide the endoscope into your mouth and throat, then to the esophagus and stomach. Using an ultrasound, we are able to capture detailed images.

Thoracoscopy And Laparoscopy

These procedures allow your doctor to examine the lymph nodes inside your chest or stomach. We can remove the nodes for further testing.

Fiberoptic Bronchoscopy

We insert a flexible camera into your airways, allowing your doctor to see the images on a large screen. This helps us identify where the cancer is and plan a more accurate course of treatment.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Scan

This is an imaging study to evaluate whether or not the tumor has spread. A PET scan uses a small amount of radioactive substance to highlight any abnormalities.


During a biopsy your doctor takes a tissue sample from your esophagus and sends it to a lab for analysis. Biopsy can offer a definitive diagnosis. There are different types of biopsies you may undergo, depending on your specific condition. At Dignity Health Cancer Institute of Greater Sacramento, we perform:

  • Endoscopic biopsy.
  • This is a biopsy your doctor performs during an endoscopy of your esophagus.
  • Bronchoscope.
  • During this procedure, your doctor passes the scope into your lungs.