Symptoms & Signs

of Esophageal Cancer

Individuals with esophageal cancer may experience the following symptoms or signs. Sometimes, people with esophageal cancer do not have any of these changes, or the cause of a symptom may be another medical condition that is not cancer.

  • Difficulty and pain with swallowing, particularly when eating meat, bread, or raw vegetables. As the tumor grows, it can block the pathway to the stomach. Even liquid may be painful to swallow.
  • Pressure or burning in the chest
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Vomiting
  • Frequent choking on food
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Coughing or hoarseness
  • Pain behind the breastbone or in the throat

Cause Esophageal cancer begins when healthy cells acquire a genetic change (mutation) that causes them to turn into abnormal cells.

Risk factors

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer.  Risk factors can influence the development of cancer but most do not directly cause cancer. Many individuals with risk factors will never develop cancer and others with no known risk factors will.  Most esophageal cancers develop sporadically, which means for no known reason. Some esophageal cancers however are more likely to develop in individuals with certain risk factors that increase an individuals chance of developing esophageal cancer.

The following factors may raise a person’s risk for developing esophageal cancer:1,2

  • Age. People between the ages of 45 and 70 have the highest risk of esophageal cancer.
  • Gender. Men are 3 to 4 times more likely than women to develop esophageal cancer.
  • Race. Black people are twice as likely to develop the squamous cell type of esophageal cancer.
  • Tobacco. Using any form of tobacco: cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and snuff increases the risk of esophageal cancer,
  • Alcohol. Heavy drinking over a long period of time increases the risk of developing esophageal cancer, especially when combined with tobacco use.
  • Barrett’s esophagus.  People with Barrett’s esophagus are more likely to develop adenocarcinoma of the esophagus.
  • Diet/nutrition. A diet that is low in fruits and vegetables and certain vitamins and minerals may increase a person’s risk.
  • Obesity. Being severely overweight and having too much body fat can increase a person’s risk.
  • Lye. Children who have accidently swallowed lye have an increased risk. Lye can be found in some cleaning products, such as drain cleaners.
  • Achalasia. Achalasia is a condition when the lower muscular ring of the esophagus does not relax during swallowing of food.

Next: Diagnosis & Tests for Esophageal Cancer


1 American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2017.