How is esophageal cancer diagnosed?

 Upper gastrointestinal (GI) endoscopy

During this procedure, a doctor uses an endoscope to see the upper GI tract which consists of the esophagus, stomach and the first part of the small intestine.  An endoscope is a lightweight, flexible, hollow instrument equipped with a lens which allows the doctor to see these internal parts.  Examining the esophagus, the doctor is looking for any abnormalities; inflammation, areas which have been irritated, abnormal growths or cancer. The procedure is generally preformed while a patient is under sedation.  Sedation is not required for all patients as some receive minimal to no sedation.   Doctors utilize endoscopy procedures to also detect ulcers, abnormal growths in the stomach or first part of small intestines, bowel obstructions or hiatal hernias.  There are small risks associated with an endoscopy such as bleeding, tissue infection and tears in the gastrointestinal tract.  These are rare instances, the Mayo Clinic reports that the latter occurs in about three to five out of every 10,000 upper endoscopies.


Also, known as a barium swallow or esophagram, is an upper gastroentestional series of X-rays used to examine the esophagus for any abnormal conditions.  This test requires patient to drink a thick liquid that temporarily coats the lining of the esophagus.  This will highlight the lining of the esophagus clearly on the X-rays to help better detect any abnormality.


If during an endoscopy, doctors finds any suspicious tissue, they will use an endoscope (defined above) passed down the throat into the esophagus to collect a sample of the tissue.  This tissue sample is then sent to a laboratory which will look for cancer cells.

 Talk to your doctor if you experience heartburn more than twice a week, as that can be a symptom of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), which is one of the major risk factor for esophageal cancer.  Patients who experience GERD symptoms for more than five years and have other risk factors associated with esophageal cancer, such as being overweight or smoking, are at an elevated risk of developing esophageal cancer.

Unfortunately, esophageal cancer is often detected late because symptoms do not occur until the cancer has progressed. 

This is why we stress the importance of speaking to your doctor about your frequent GERD symptoms and discuss the different ways in which they can be controlled.  For many, lifestyle changes, such as monitoring food and beverage ‘reflux triggers’ and losing weight, can help alleviate acid reflux.  (Click here to read more tips on how to manage acid reflux.)

Too often, esophageal cancer is diagnosed at advanced and/or incurable stages due to the late onset of symptoms. This makes the cancer difficult if not impossible to treat and often results in 80% of patients diagnosed with esophageal cancer dying within the first year.

Let’s work together to change the statistics regarding esophageal cancer.  If you are experiencing frequent acid reflux, consult your doctor and be sure to also share this message with your family and friends.  Click on the share buttons below to spread the word and save lives!
American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy 
The Salgi Esophageal Cancer Research Foundation is a 501 (c) (3) non profit organization as recognized by the Internal Revenue Service.Content found on is for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

One Response to How is esophageal cancer diagnosed?

  1. […] It is imperative that patients suffering from chronic and frequent heartburn to be proactive.   Talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes to help reduce GERD symptoms.  Also, discuss the various tests used to detect esophageal cancer.  Click here for more information regarding methods used to detect esophageal cancer. […]

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