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Esophageal Cancer - Introduction

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Esophageal Cancer. To see other pages, use the menu. Think of that menu as a roadmap to this full guide.

About the esophagus

The esophagus is a 10-inch long, hollow, muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach. It is part of a person’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract. When a person swallows, the walls of the esophagus squeeze together to push food down into the stomach.

About esophageal cancer

Cancer begins when healthy cells change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread. Esophageal cancer, also called esophagus cancer, begins in the cells that line the esophagus.

Specifically, cancer of the esophagus begins in the inner layer of the esophageal wall and grows outward. If it spreads through the esophageal wall, it can travel to lymph nodes, which are the tiny, bean-shaped organs that help fight infection, as well as the blood vessels in the chest and other nearby organs. Esophageal cancer can also spread to the lungs, liver, stomach, and other parts of the body.

Types of esophageal cancer

There are 2 major types of esophageal cancer:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma. This type of esophageal cancer starts in squamous cells that line the esophagus. It usually develops in the upper and middle part of the esophagus.

  • Adenocarcinoma. This type begins in the glandular tissue in the lower part of the esophagus where the esophagus and the stomach come together.

Treatment is similar for both of these types of esophageal cancer. Other, very rare tumors of the esophagus, which make up less than 1% of esophageal cancers, include small cell neuroendocrine cancers, lymphomas, and sarcoma.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore this related item. Please note this link will take you to another section on Cancer.Net:

  • ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: Read a 1-page fact sheet that offers an introduction to this type of cancer. This fact sheet is available as a PDF, so it is easy to print out.

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain how many people are diagnosed with this disease and general survival rates. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Esophageal Cancer - Statistics

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find information about the number of people who are diagnosed with esophageal cancer each year. You will read general information on surviving the disease. Remember, survival rates depend on several factors. Use the menu to see other pages.

This year, an estimated 16,940 adults (13,360 men and 3,580 women) in the United States will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The disease accounts for 1% of cancers diagnosed in the United States. It is diagnosed more often in other parts of the world.

It is estimated that 15,690 deaths (12,720 men and 2,970 women) from this disease will occur this year. Esophageal cancer is the seventh most common cause of cancer death among men.

The 5-year survival rate tells you what percent of people live at least 5 years after the cancer is found. Percent means how many out of 100. The 5-year survival rate for people with esophageal cancer is 18%. 

However, survival rates depend on several factors, including the stage of the cancer when it is first diagnosed. The 5-year survival rate of people with cancer located only in the esophagus is 41%. The 5-year survival rate for those with disease that has spread to surrounding tissues or organs and/or the regional lymph nodes is 23%. If it has spread to distant parts of the body, the survival rate is 5%.

It is important to remember that statistics on the survival rates for people with esophageal cancer are an estimate. The estimate comes from annual data based on the number of people with this cancer in the United States. Also, experts measure the survival statistics every 5 years. So the estimate may not show the results of better diagnosis or treatment available for less than 5 years. People should talk with their doctor if they have questions about this information. Learn more about understanding statistics.

Statistics adapted from the American Cancer Society's (ACS) publication, Cancer Facts & Figures 2017, and the ACS website.

The next section in this guide is Medical Illustrations. It offers drawings of body parts often affected by this disease. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.  

Esophageal Cancer - Medical Illustrations

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find a basic drawing of the main body parts affected by this disease. To see other pages, use the menu.

This illustration shows the esophagus, a long, hollow, muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach. A cross section of the esophagus shows two layers of muscle: the longitudinal muscle on the outside and the circular muscle on the inside, which surrounds the submucosa. The hollow interior of the esophagus is the lumen. Copyright 2004 American Society of Clinical Oncology. Robert Morreale/Visual Explanations, LLC.

The next section in this guide is Risk Factors. It explains what factors may increase the chance of developing this disease. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Esophageal Cancer - Risk Factors

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing this type of cancer. To see other pages, use the menu.

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop cancer, while others with no known risk factors do. However, knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

The following factors may raise a person’s risk of developing esophageal cancer:

  • 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 as white people to develop the squamous cell type of esophageal cancer.

  • Tobacco. Using any form of tobacco—including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and snuff—raises the risk of esophageal cancer, especially squamous cell carcinoma.

  • Alcohol. Heavy drinking over a long period of time increases the risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus, especially when combined with tobacco use.

  • Barrett's esophagus. This condition can develop in some people who have chronic gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or inflammation of the esophagus called esophagitis, even when a person does not have symptoms of chronic heartburn. Damage to the lining of the esophagus causes the squamous cells in the lining of the esophagus to turn into glandular tissue. People with Barrett's esophagus are more likely to develop adenocarcinoma of the esophagus, but the risk of developing esophageal cancer is still fairly low.

  • Diet/nutrition. A diet that is low in fruits and vegetables and certain vitamins and minerals can increase a person's risk of developing esophageal cancer.

  • Obesity. Being severely overweight and having too much body fat can increase a person's risk of developing esophageal adenocarcinoma.

  • Lye. Children who have accidently swallowed lye have an increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma. 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. Achalasia increases the risk of squamous cell carcinoma.

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). Researchers are investigating HPV as a risk factor for esophageal cancer, but there is no clear link that squamous cell esophageal cancer is related to HPV infection. Sexual activity with someone who has HPV is the most common way someone gets HPV. There are different types of HPV, called strains. Research links some HPV strains more strongly with certain types of cancers. There are vaccines available to protect you from some HPV strains.  

The next section in this guide is Screening. It explains how tests may find cancer before signs or symptoms appear. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Esophageal Cancer - Screening

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about screening for this type of cancer. You will also learn the risks and benefits of screening. To see other pages, use the menu.

Screening is used to look for cancer before you have any symptoms or signs. Scientists have developed, and continue to develop, tests that can be used to screen a person for specific types of cancer. The overall goals of cancer screening are to:

  • Lower the number of people who die from the disease, or eliminate deaths from cancer altogether

  • Lower the number of people who develop the disease

Learn more about the basics of cancer screening.

Screening information for esophageal cancer

Regular screening tests to find esophageal cancer in people without symptoms are not used in the United States. People with Barrett's esophagus (see above) may be advised to have regular endoscopic examinations. An endoscopic examination is a procedure that used a flexible, lighted tube to look inside the esophagus. During these examinations, biopsies can be taken to remove a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope. This type of screening can help find cancer early or changes that could become cancerous over time. Learn more about these tests in the Diagnosis section.

The next section in this guide is Symptoms and Signs. It explains what body changes or medical problems this disease can cause. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Esophageal Cancer - Symptoms and Signs

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about body changes and other things that can signal a problem that may need medical care. To see other pages, use the menu.

People 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

If you are concerned about any changes you experience, please talk with your doctor. Your doctor will ask how long and how often you’ve been experiencing the symptom(s), in addition to other questions. This is to help find out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis.

If cancer is diagnosed, relieving symptoms remains an important part of cancer care and treatment. This may also be called symptom management, palliative care, or supportive care. Be sure to talk with your health care team about symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

The next section in this guide is Diagnosis. It explains what tests may be needed to learn more about the cause of the symptoms. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Esophageal Cancer - Diagnosis

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find a list of common tests, procedures, and scans that doctors use to find the cause of a medical problem. To see other pages, use the menu.

Doctors use many tests to find, or diagnose, cancer. They also do tests to learn if cancer has spread to another part of the body from where it started. If this happens, it is called metastasis. For example, imaging tests can show if the cancer has spread. Imaging tests show pictures of the inside of the body. Doctors may also do tests to learn which treatments could work best.

For most types of cancer, a biopsy is the only sure way for the doctor to know whether an area of the body has cancer. In a biopsy, the doctor takes a small sample of tissue for testing in a laboratory. If a biopsy is not possible, the doctor may suggest other tests that will help make a diagnosis.

This list describes options for diagnosing this type of cancer, and not all tests listed will be used for every person. Your doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:

  • The type of cancer suspected

  • Your signs and symptoms

  • Your age and medical condition

  • The results of earlier medical tests

In addition to a physical examination, the following tests may be used to diagnose esophageal cancer:

  • Barium swallow, also called an esophagram. The patient swallows a liquid containing barium and then a series of x-rays are taken. An x-ray is a way to take a picture of the inside of the body. Barium coats the surface of the esophagus, making a tumor or other unusual changes easier to see on the x-ray. If there is an abnormal looking area, your doctor may recommend an upper endoscopy and biopsy to find out if it is cancerous (see below).

  • Upper endoscopy, also called esophagus-gastric-duodenoscopy, or EGD. An upper endoscopy allows the doctor to see the lining of the esophagus. A thin, flexible tube with a light and video camera on the end, called an endoscope, is passed down the throat and into the esophagus while the patient is sedated. Sedation is giving medication to become more relaxed, calm, or sleepy. If there is an abnormal looking area, a biopsy will be performed to find out if it is cancerous. An endoscopy using an inflatable balloon to stretch the esophagus can also help widen the blocked area so that food can pass through until treatment begins.

  • Endoscopic ultrasound. This procedure is often done at the same time as the upper endoscopy. During an ultrasound, sound waves provide a picture of the wall of the esophagus and nearby lymph nodes and structures. During an endoscopic ultrasound, an endoscopic probe with an attached ultrasound that produces the sound waves is inserted into the esophagus through the mouth. The ultrasound is used to find out if the tumor has grown into the wall of the esophagus, how deep the tumor has grown, and whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or other nearby structures. An ultrasound can also be used to help get a tissue sample from the lymph nodes.

  • Bronchoscopy. Similar to an upper endoscopy, the doctor passes a thin, flexible tube with a light on the end into the mouth or nose, down through the windpipe, and into the breathing passages of the lungs. A bronchoscopy may be performed if a patient’s tumor is located in the upper two-thirds of the esophagus to find out if the tumor is growing into the person’s airway. This part of a person’s airway includes the trachea, or windpipe, and the area where the windpipe branches out into the lungs called the bronchial tree.

  • Biopsy. Other tests can suggest that cancer is present, but only a biopsy can make a definite diagnosis. A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue from the suspicious area for examination. A pathologist then analyzes the sample(s). A pathologist is a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease.

  • Molecular testing of the tumor. Your doctor may recommend running laboratory tests on a tumor sample to identify specific genes, proteins, and other factors unique to the tumor. Results of these tests will help decide whether your treatment options include a type of treatment called targeted therapy (see Treatment Options).

    • HER2 testing. Human epidermal growth receptor 2 (HER2) is a specialized protein found on the surface of cells. Many people are more familiar with HER2 when discussing breast cancer. However, doctors are finding that HER2 is also important in other types of cancer. When a cancer has abnormally high levels of HER2, it can drive its growth and spread. These types of cancer are referred to as HER2-positive. For HER2-positive cancers, certain types of targeted therapy may work well to treat these cancers. For patients diagnosed with gastroesophageal adenocarcinoma, ASCO, the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), and the College of American Pathologists (CAP) recommend HER2 testing to help guide treatment.

  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan. A CT scan creates a 3-dimensional picture of the inside of the body using x-rays taken from different angles. A computer then combines these images into a detailed, cross-sectional view that shows any abnormalities or tumors. A CT scan can also be used to measure the tumor’s size. Usually, a special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to provide better detail. This dye is generally injected into a patient’s vein.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses magnetic fields, not x-rays, to produce detailed images of the body. MRI can also be used to measure the tumor’s size. A contrast medium is usually injected into a patient’s vein to create a clearer picture.

  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan. A PET scan is usually combined with a CT scan (see above), called a PET-CT scan. However, you may hear your doctor refer to this procedure just as a PET scan. A PET scan is a way to create pictures of organs and tissues inside the body. A small amount of a radioactive sugar substance is injected into the patient’s body. This sugar substance is taken up by cells that use the most energy. Because cancer tends to use energy actively, it absorbs more of the radioactive substance. A scanner then detects this substance to produce images of the inside of the body.

After diagnostic tests are done, your doctor will review all of the results with you. If the diagnosis is cancer, these results also help the doctor describe the cancer; this is called staging.

The next section in this guide is Stages and Grades. It explains the system doctors use to describe the extent of the disease. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide. 

Esophageal Cancer - Stages

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn about how doctors describe a cancer’s growth or spread. This is called the stage. In addition to stage, a cancer’s growth may also be described by its grade, which describes how much cancer cells look like healthy cells. To see other pages, use the menu.

Staging is a way of describing where the cancer is located, if or where it has spread, and whether it is affecting other parts of the body. Doctors use diagnostic tests to find out the cancer's stage, so staging may not be complete until all the tests are finished. Knowing the stage helps the doctor to decide what kind of treatment is best and can help predict a patient's prognosis, which is the chance of recovery. There are different stage descriptions for different types of cancer.

TNM staging system

One tool that doctors use to describe the stage is the TNM system. Doctors use the results from diagnostic tests and scans to answer these questions:

  • Tumor (T): How deeply has the primary tumor grown into the wall of the esophagus and the surrounding tissue?

  • Node (N): Has the tumor spread to the lymph nodes? If so, where and how many?

  • Metastasis (M): Has the cancer metastasized to other parts of the body? If so, where and how much?

The results are combined to determine the stage of cancer for each person. There are 5 stages: stage 0 (zero) and stages I through IV (1 through 4). The stage provides a common way of describing the cancer, so doctors can work together to plan the best treatments.

Here are more details on each part of the TNM system for esophageal cancer:

Tumor (T)

Using the TNM system, the "T" plus a letter or number (0 to 4) is used to describe the tumor, including whether the cancer has grown into the wall of the esophagus or nearby tissue, and if so, how deep. Some stages are also divided into smaller groups that help describe the tumor in even more detail. Specific tumor stage information is listed below.

TX: The primary tumor cannot be evaluated.

T0: There is no cancer in the esophagus.

Tis: This is called carcinoma (cancer) in situ. Carcinoma in situ is very early cancer. Cancer cells are in only 1 small area of the top lining of the esophagus without any spread into the lining.

T1: There is a tumor in the lamina propria and the 2 inside layers of the esophagus called the submucosa. Cancer cells have spread into the lining of the esophagus.

T2: The tumor is in the third layer of the esophagus called the muscularis propria. Cancer cells have spread into but not through the muscle wall of the esophagus.

T3: The tumor is in the outer layer of the esophagus called the adventitia. Cancer cells have spread through the entire muscle wall of the esophagus into surrounding tissue.

T4: The tumor has spread outside the esophagus into areas around it. Cancer cells have spread to structures surrounding the esophagus, including the large blood vessel coming from the heart called the aorta, the windpipe, diaphragm, and the pleural lining of the lung.

Node (N)

The “N” in the TNM staging system stands for lymph nodes. In esophageal cancer, lymph nodes near the esophagus and in the chest are called regional lymph nodes. Lymph nodes in other parts of the body are called distant lymph nodes.

NX: The lymph nodes cannot be evaluated.

N0: The cancer was not found in any lymph nodes.

N1: The cancer has spread to 1 or 2 lymph nodes in the chest, near the tumor.

N2: The cancer has spread to 3 to 6 lymph nodes in the chest, near the tumor.

N3: The cancer has spread to 7 or more lymph nodes in the chest, near the tumor.

Metastasis (M)

The "M" in the TNM system indicates whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

MX: Metastasis cannot be evaluated.

M0: The cancer has not spread to other parts of the body.

M1: The cancer has spread to another part of the body.

Grade (G)

Doctors also describe this type of cancer by its grade (G), which describes how much cancer cells look like healthy cells when viewed under a microscope. The doctor compares the cancerous tissue with healthy tissue. Healthy tissue usually contains many different types of cells grouped together. If the cancer looks similar to healthy tissue and contains different cell groupings, it is called well differentiated. If the cancerous tissue looks very different from healthy tissue, it is called poorly differentiated.

G1: The tissue looks more like healthy cells, called well differentiated.

G2: The cells are somewhat different than healthy cells, called somewhat differentiated.

G3: The tumor cells barely look like healthy cells, called poorly differentiated.

G4: The cancer cells look almost alike and do not look like healthy cells, called not differentiated.

Cancer stage grouping

Doctors assign the stage of the cancer by combining the T, N, and M classifications. There are separate staging systems for the 2 most common types of esophageal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. The staging system for each is described below.

Staging of squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus

In addition to the TNM classifications, for squamous cell carcinoma, the stages may be subdivided based on whether the tumor is located in the upper, middle, or lower section of the esophagus, as well as the grade (G) of the tumor cells.

Stage 0: This is the same as Tis cancer, in which cancer is found in only the top lining of the esophagus (Tis, N0, M0, G1).

Stage IA: This is the same as T1 cancer, in which the cancer is located in only the 2 inside layers of the esophagus (T1, N0, M0, G1).

Stage IB: Either of these conditions:

  • The cancer is located in only the 2 inside layers of the esophagus, but the tumor cells are less differentiated (T1, N0, M0, G2 or G3).

  • The tumor is located in the lower part of the esophagus, and the cancer has spread to either of the 2 outer layers of the esophagus, but not to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body (T2 or T3, N0, M0, G1).

Stage IIA: Either of these conditions:

  • The tumor is located in the upper or middle part of the esophagus, and the cancer is in either of the 2 outer layers of the esophagus (T2 or T3, N0, M0, G1).

  • The tumor is located in the lower part of the esophagus, and the cancer is in either of the 2 outer layers of the esophagus. The tumor cells are less differentiated (T2 or T3, N0, M0, G2 or G3).

Stage IIB: Either of these conditions:

  • The tumor is located in the upper or middle part of the esophagus, and cancer is in either of the 2 outer layers of the esophagus. The tumor cells are less differentiated (T2 or T3, N0, M0, G2 or G3).

  • Cancer is in the inner layers of the esophagus and has spread to 1 or 2 lymph nodes near the tumor (T1 or T2, N1, M0, any G).

Stage IIIA: Any of these conditions:

  • Cancer is in the inner layers of the esophagus and has spread to 3 to 6 lymph nodes near the tumor (T1 or T2, N2, M0, any G).

  • Cancer is in the outside layer of the esophagus and has spread to 1 or 2 lymph nodes (T3, N1, M0, any G).

  • Cancer has spread beyond the esophagus to nearby tissue but not to lymph nodes or other areas of the body (T4a, N0, M0, any G).

Stage IIIB: Cancer is in the outside layer of the esophagus and in 3 to 6 lymph nodes (T3, N2, M0, any G).

Stage IIIC: Any of these conditions:

  • Cancer has spread beyond the esophagus into nearby tissue. Cancer is also in 6 or less lymph nodes (T4a, N1 or N2, M0, any G).

  • Cancer has spread beyond the esophagus into nearby tissue and cannot be removed by surgery (T4b, any N, M0, any G).

  • Cancer has spread to 7 or more lymph nodes but not to distant parts of the body (any T, N3, M0, any G).

Stage IV: Cancer has spread to another part of the body (any T, any N, M1, any G).

Staging of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus

For adenocarcinoma, doctors use the T, N, and M classifications, as well as the grade (G).

Stage 0: This is the same as Tis cancer, in which cancer is found in only the top lining of the esophagus (Tis, N0, M0, G1).

Stage IA: This is the same as T1 cancer, in which the cancer is located in either of the 2 inside layers of the esophagus only (T1, N0, M0, G1 or G2).

Stage IB: Either of these conditions:

  • The cancer is located in either of the 2 inside layers of the esophagus only, and the tumor cells are poorly differentiated (T1, N0, M0, G3).

  • The cancer has spread to an outer layer of the esophagus but not to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body (T2, N0, M0, G1 or G2).

Stage IIA: Cancer is in an outer layer of the esophagus, and the cells are poorly differentiated (T2, N0, M0, G3).

Stage IIB: Either of these conditions:

  • Cancer is in the outside layer of the esophagus but not beyond (T3, N0, M0, any G).

  • Cancer is in an inner layer or the muscularis propria of the esophagus and has spread to 1 or 2 lymph nodes (T1 or T2, N1, M0, any G).

Stage IIIA: Any of these conditions:

  • Cancer is in the inner layers of the esophagus and has spread to 3 to 6 lymph nodes near the tumor (T1 or T2, N2, M0, any G).

  • Cancer is in the outside layer of the esophagus and has spread to 1 or 2 lymph nodes (T3, N1, M0, any G).

  • Cancer has spread beyond the esophagus to nearby tissue but not to lymph nodes or other areas of the body (T4a, N0, M0, any G).

Stage IIIB: Cancer is in the outside layer of the esophagus and in 3 to 6 lymph nodes (T3, N2, M0, any G).

Stage IIIC: Any of these conditions:

  • Cancer has spread beyond the esophagus into nearby tissue. Cancer is also in 6 or less lymph nodes (T4a, N1 or N2, M0, any G).

  • Cancer has spread beyond the esophagus into nearby tissue and cannot be removed by surgery (T4b, any N, M0, any G).

  • Cancer has spread to 7 or more lymph nodes but not to distant parts of the body (any T, N3, M0, any G).

Stage IV: Cancer has spread to another part of the body (any T, any N, M1, any G).

Recurrent: Recurrent cancer is cancer that has come back after treatment. It may come back in the esophagus or in another part of the body. If the cancer does return, there will be another round of tests to learn about the extent of the recurrence. These tests and scans are often similar to those done at the time of the original diagnosis.

Used with permission of the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC), Chicago, Illinois. The original source for this material is the AJCC Cancer Staging Manual, Seventh Edition published by Springer-Verlag New York, www.cancerstaging.org.

Information about the cancer’s stage and grade will help the doctor recommend a specific treatment plan. The next section in this guide is Treatment Options. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Esophageal Cancer - Treatment Options

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn about the different ways doctors use to treat people with this type of cancer. To see other pages, use the menu.

This section tells you the treatments that are the standard of care for this type of cancer. “Standard of care” means the best treatments known. When making treatment plan decisions, patients are also encouraged to consider clinical trials as an option. A clinical trial is a research study that tests a new approach to treatment. Doctors want to learn if it is safe, effective, and possibly better than the standard treatment. Clinical trials can test a new drug, a new combination of standard treatments, or new doses of standard drugs or other treatments. Your doctor can help you consider all your treatment options. To learn more about clinical trials, see the About Clinical Trials and Latest Research sections.

Treatment overview

In cancer care, different types of doctors often work together to create a patient’s overall treatment plan that combines different types of treatments. This is called a multidisciplinary team. Cancer care teams also include a variety of other health care professionals, including physician assistants, oncology nurses, social workers, pharmacists, counselors, dietitians, and others.

Treatment options and recommendations depend on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, possible side effects, and the patient’s preferences and overall health. Your care plan may also include treatment for symptoms and side effects, an important part of cancer care. Take time to learn about all of your treatment options and be sure to ask questions about things that are unclear. Also, talk about the goals of each treatment with your doctor and what you can expect while receiving the treatment. Learn more about making treatment decisions.

For people with a tumor that has not spread beyond the esophagus and lymph nodes, doctors often recommend combining different types of treatment: radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery. The order of treatments varies, and several factors are considered, including the type of esophageal cancer.

Particularly for squamous cell cancer, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, a combination called chemoradiotherapy, are commonly recommended as the first treatment. Surgery may be used afterwards depending how well chemoradiotherapy worked. Recent studies show using chemoradiotherapy before surgery is better than surgery alone.

For adenocarcinoma, the most common treatment in the United States is chemotherapy and radiation therapy followed by surgery. Surgery is almost always recommended after chemoradiotherapy, unless there are factors that increase the risks from surgery, such as a patient’s age or overall health.

For advanced esophageal cancer, treatment usually involves chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

More detailed descriptions of these treatment options are listed below.

Getting care for symptoms and side effects

Cancer and its treatment often cause side effects. In addition to treatment to slow, stop, or eliminate the cancer, an important part of cancer care is relieving a person’s symptoms and side effects. This approach is called palliative or supportive care, and it includes supporting the patient with his or her physical, emotional, and social needs.

Palliative care is any treatment that focuses on reducing symptoms, improving quality of life, and supporting patients and their families. Any person, regardless of age or type and stage of cancer, may receive palliative care. It works best when palliative care is started as early as needed in the cancer treatment process. People often receive treatment for the cancer and treatment to ease side effects at the same time. In fact, patients who receive both often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and report they are more satisfied with treatment.

Palliative treatments vary widely and often include medication, nutritional changes, relaxation techniques, emotional support, and other therapies. You may also receive palliative treatments similar to those meant to eliminate the cancer, such as chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation therapy. Talk with your doctor about the goals of each treatment in the treatment plan.

Before treatment begins, talk with your health care team about the possible side effects of your specific treatment plan and palliative care options. And during and after treatment, be sure to tell your doctor or another health care team member if you are experiencing a problem so it can be addressed as quickly as possible. Learn more about palliative care.

Surgery

Surgery is the removal of the tumor and some surrounding healthy tissue during an operation. A surgical oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer using surgery. Surgery has traditionally been the most common treatment for esophageal cancer. However, currently, surgery is used as the main treatment only for patients with early-stage esophageal cancer.

For patients with locally-advanced esophageal cancer, a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy (see below) may be used before surgery to shrink the tumor. For people who cannot have surgery, the best treatment option is often a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

The most common surgery to treat esophageal cancer is called an esophagectomy, where the doctor removes the affected part of the esophagus and then connects the remaining healthy part of the esophagus to the stomach so that the patient can swallow normally. The stomach or part of the intestine may sometimes be used to make the connection. The surgeon also removes lymph nodes around the esophagus. Talk with your health care team about the possible side effects of this surgery and how they will be managed.

Surgery for palliative care

In addition to surgery to treat the disease, surgery may be used to help patients eat and relieve symptoms caused by the cancer. This is called palliative surgery. To do this, surgeons and gastroenterologists (doctors who specialize in the gastrointestinal tract) can:

  • Put in a percutaneous gastrostomy or jejunostomy, also called a feeding tube, so that a person can receive nutrition directly into the stomach or intestine. This may be done before chemotherapy and radiation therapy is given to make sure that the patient can eat enough food to maintain his or her weight and strength during treatment.

  • Create a bypass, or new pathway, to the stomach if a tumor blocks the esophagus but cannot be removed with surgery; this procedure is rarely used.

People who have had trouble eating and drinking may need intravenous (IV; into a vein) feedings and fluids for several days before and after surgery, as well as antibiotics to prevent or treat infections. Patients learn special coughing and breathing exercises to keep their lungs clear.

Learn more about the basics of cancer surgery.

Endoscopic therapy

The following treatments use an endoscope (see Diagnosis) to treat esophageal cancer and to manage side effects caused by the tumor.

  • Endoscopy and dilation. This procedure expands the esophagus. It may have to be repeated if the tumor grows.

  • Endoscopy with stent placement. This procedure uses an endoscopy to insert a stent in the esophagus. An esophageal stent is a metal, mesh device that is expanded to keep the esophagus open.

  • Photodynamic therapy. Photodynamic therapy is a palliative or supportive care option used to make swallowing easier, especially for people who cannot or choose not to have surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. In photodynamic therapy, a light-sensitive substance is injected into the tumor and stays longer in cancer cells than in healthy cells. A light is then aimed at the tumor, destroying the cancer cells. Although photodynamic therapy may relieve swallowing problems for a short period of time, it does not cure esophageal cancer.

  • Electrocoagulation. This type of palliative treatment helps kill cancer cells by heating them with an electric current. This is sometimes used to help relieve symptoms by removing a blockage caused by the tumor.

  • Cryotherapy. This is a type of palliative treatment that uses an endoscope with a probe attached that can freeze and remove tumor tissue. It can be used to reduce the size of a tumor to help a patient swallow better.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy x-rays or other particles to destroy cancer cells. A doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer is called a radiation oncologist. A radiation therapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of treatments given over a set period of time. The most common type of radiation treatment is called external-beam radiation therapy, which is radiation therapy given from a machine outside the body.

When radiation treatment is given directly inside the body, it is called internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy. For esophageal cancer, this involves temporarily inserting a radioactive wire into the esophagus using an endoscope (see Diagnosis).

Side effects from radiation therapy may include fatigue, mild skin reactions, soreness in the throat and esophagus, difficulty or pain with swallowing, upset stomach, nausea, and loose bowel movements. Most side effects go away soon after treatment is finished.

Learn more about the basics of radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells, usually by stopping the cancer cells’ ability to grow and divide. Chemotherapy is given by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medication.

Systemic chemotherapy gets into the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Common ways to give chemotherapy include an IV tube placed into a vein using a needle or in a pill or capsule that is swallowed (orally).

A chemotherapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of cycles given over a set period of time. A patient may receive 1 drug at a time or combinations of different drugs at the same time. As explained above, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are often given at the same time to treat esophageal cancer, called chemoradiotherapy.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the individual and the dose used, but they can include fatigue, risk of infection, nausea and vomiting, hair loss, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. These side effects usually go away once treatment is finished.

Learn more about the basics of chemotherapy and preparing for treatment. The medications used to treat cancer are continually being evaluated. Talking with your doctor is often the best way to learn about the medications prescribed for you, their purpose, and their potential side effects or interactions with other medications. Learn more about your prescriptions by using searchable drug databases.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a treatment that targets the cancer’s specific genes, proteins, or the tissue environment that contributes to cancer growth and survival. This type of treatment blocks the growth and spread of cancer cells while limiting damage to healthy cells.

Recent studies show that not all tumors have the same targets. To find the most effective treatment, your doctor may run tests to identify the genes, proteins, and other factors in your tumor. This helps doctors better match each patient with the most effective treatment whenever possible. In addition, many research studies are taking place now to find out more about specific molecular targets and new treatments directed at them. Learn more about the basics of targeted treatments.

  • HER2-targeted therapy. For esophageal cancer, the targeted therapy trastuzumab (Herceptin) may be used along with chemotherapy for patients with metastatic esophageal adenocarcinoma. For patients with metastatic or recurrent gastroesophageal cancer that is HER2 positive, ASCO, ASCP, and CAP recommend a combination of chemotherapy and HER2-targeted therapy. If the cancer is HER2 negative, HER2-targeted therapy is not a treatment option for you, and your doctor will give you other options for treating the cancer.

  • Anti-angiogenesis therapy. The targeted therapy ramucirumab (Cyramza) is also an option if first-line therapy, or the first treatments given, has not worked. Ramucirumab is a type of targeted therapy called an anti-angiogenic. It is focused on stopping angiogenesis, which is the process of making new blood vessels. Because a tumor needs the nutrients delivered by blood vessels to grow and spread, the goal of anti-angiogenesis therapies is to “starve” the tumor. Ramuciramab may be given by itself or with paclitaxel (Taxol), a type of chemotherapy (see above).

Talk with your doctor about possible side effects for each specific medication you are prescribed and how they can be managed.

Metastatic esophageal cancer

If cancer spreads to another part in the body from where it started, doctors call it metastatic cancer. If this happens, it is a good idea to talk with doctors who have experience in treating it. Doctors can have different opinions about the best standard treatment plan. Also, clinical trials might be an option. Learn more about getting a second opinion before starting treatment, so you are comfortable with your treatment plan chosen.

For metastatic esophageal cancer, palliative or supportive care is very important to help relieve symptoms and side effects. The goal of treatment is usually to lengthen a person’s life, while easing symptoms such as pain and problems with eating. Your treatment plan may include chemotherapy, as well as radiation therapy to help relieve pain or discomfort. For example, an esophageal stent, laser therapy, photodynamic therapy, or cryotherapy may help keep the esophagus open (see above).

For most patients, a diagnosis of metastatic cancer is very stressful and, at times, difficult to bear. Patients and their families are encouraged to talk about the way they are feeling with doctors, nurses, social workers, or other members of the health care team. It may also be helpful to talk with other patients, including through a support group.

Remission and the chance of recurrence

A remission is when cancer cannot be detected in the body and there are no symptoms. This may also be called having “no evidence of disease” or NED.

A remission can be temporary or permanent. This uncertainty causes many people to worry that the cancer will come back. While many remissions are permanent, it’s important to talk with your doctor about the possibility of the cancer returning. Understanding your risk of recurrence and the treatment options may help you feel more prepared if the cancer does return. Learn more about coping with the fear of recurrence.  

If the cancer does return after the original treatment, it is called recurrent cancer. It may come back in the same place (called a local recurrence), nearby (regional recurrence), or in another place (distant recurrence).

When this occurs, a cycle of testing will begin again to learn as much as possible about the recurrence. After testing is done, you and your doctor will talk about your treatment options. Often the treatment plan will include the treatments described above such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, but they may be used in a different combination or given at a different pace. Your doctor may also suggest clinical trials that are studying new ways to treat this type of recurrent cancer. Whichever treatment plan you choose, palliative care will be important for relieving symptoms and side effects.

People with recurrent cancer often experience emotions such as disbelief or fear. Patients are encouraged to talk with their health care team about these feelings and ask about support services to help them cope. Learn more about dealing with cancer recurrence.

If treatment fails

Recovery from cancer is not always possible. If the cancer cannot be cured or controlled, the disease may be called advanced or terminal.

This diagnosis is stressful, and advanced cancer is difficult to discuss for many people. However, it is important to have open and honest conversations with your doctor and health care team to express your feelings, preferences, and concerns. The health care team is there to help, and many team members have special skills, experience, and knowledge to support patients and their families. Making sure a person is physically comfortable and free from pain is extremely important.

Patients who have advanced cancer and who are expected to live less than 6 months may want to consider a type of palliative care called hospice care. Hospice care is designed to provide the best possible quality of life for people who are near the end of life. You and your family are encouraged to think about where you would be most comfortable: at home, in the hospital, or in a hospice environment. Nursing care and special equipment can make staying at home a workable alternative for many families. Learn more about advanced cancer care planning.

After the death of a loved one, many people need support to help them cope with the loss. Learn more about grief and loss.

The next section in this guide is About Clinical Trials. It offers more information about research studies that are focused on finding better ways to care for people with cancer. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Esophageal Cancer - About Clinical Trials

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn more about clinical trials, which are the main way that new medical approaches are tested to see how well they work. To see other pages, use the menu.

What are clinical trials?

Doctors and scientists are always looking for better ways to treat patients with esophageal cancer. To make scientific advances, doctors create research studies involving volunteers, called clinical trials. In fact, every drug that is now approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was tested in clinical trials.

Many clinical trials focus on new treatments. Researchers want to learn if a new treatment is safe, effective, and possibly better than the treatment doctors use now. These types of studies evaluate new drugs, different combinations of existing treatments, new approaches to radiation therapy or surgery, and new methods of treatment. Patients who participate in clinical trials can be some of the first to get a treatment before it is available to the public. However, there is no guarantee that the new treatment will be safe, effective, or better than what doctors use now.

Some clinical trials study new ways to relieve symptoms and side effects during treatment. Others study ways to manage the late effects that may happen a long time after treatment. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials for symptoms and side effects. There are also clinical trials studying ways to prevent cancer.

Deciding to join a clinical trial

Patients decide to participate in clinical trials for many reasons. For some patients, a clinical trial is the best treatment option available. Because standard treatments are not perfect, patients are often willing to face the added uncertainty of a clinical trial in the hope of a better result. Other patients volunteer for clinical trials because they know that these studies are the only way to make progress in treating esophageal cancer. Even if they do not benefit directly from the clinical trial, their participation may benefit future patients with esophageal cancer.

Sometimes people have concerns that, in a clinical trial, they may receive no treatment by being given a placebo or a “sugar pill.” However, placebos are usually combined with standard treatment in most cancer clinical trials. When a placebo is used in a study, it is done with the full knowledge of the participants. Find out more about placebos in cancer clinical trials.

Patient safety and informed consent

To join a clinical trial, patients must participate in a process known as informed consent.  During informed consent, the doctor should list all of the patient’s options, so that the person understands how the new treatment differs from the standard treatment. The doctor must also list all of the risks of the new treatment, which may or may not be different than the risks of standard treatment. Finally, the doctor must explain what will be required of each patient in order to participate in the clinical trial, including the number of doctor visits, tests, and the schedule of treatment.

Patients who participate in a clinical trial may stop participating at any time for any personal or medical reason. This may include that the new treatment is not working or there are serious side effects. Clinical trials are also closely monitored by experts who watch for any problems with each study. It is important that patients participating in a clinical trial talk with their doctor and researchers about who will be providing their treatment and care during the clinical trial, after the clinical trial ends, and/or if the patient chooses to leave the clinical trial before it ends.

Finding a clinical trial

Research through clinical trials is ongoing for all types of cancer. For specific topics being studied for esophageal cancer, learn more in the Latest Research section.

Cancer.Net offers a lot of information about cancer clinical trials in other areas of the website, including a complete section on clinical trials and places to search for clinical trials for a specific type of cancer.

In addition, this website offers free access to a video-based educational program about cancer clinical trials, located outside of this guide.

The next section in this guide is Latest Research. It explains areas of scientific research currently going on for this type of cancer. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Esophageal Cancer - Latest Research

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about the scientific research being done now to learn more about this type of cancer and how to treat it. To see other pages, use the menu on the side of your screen.

Doctors are working to learn more about esophageal cancer, ways to prevent it, how to best treat it, and how to provide the best care to people diagnosed with this disease. The following areas of research may include new options for patients through clinical trials. Always talk with your doctor about the diagnostic and treatment options best for you.

  • Chemoprevention. Researchers are looking at using aspirin and antacids to prevent esophageal adenocarcinoma in people with Barrett’s esophagus. Research is still ongoing, and people are encouraged to talk with their doctor before taking any medications or dietary supplements for this reason. Learn about the basics of chemoprevention.

  • PET scan. In addition to help find out the cancer’s stage (see Stages), PET scans may be used to find out how well treatment is working to shrink a tumor before surgery. Researchers are studying the use of PET scan to evaluate and possibly change treatment before surgery.

  • Chemotherapy advances. Doctors are studying combinations of different drugs, such as capecitabine (Xeloda), cisplatin (Platinol), docetaxel (Docefrez, Taxotere), fluorouracil (5-FU, Adrucil), irinotecan (Camptosar), oxaliplatin (Eloxatin) and paclitaxel. And, research is ongoing to find new drugs that are effective for esophageal cancer.

  • Targeted therapy. Several types of targeted therapies are currently being studied for esophageal cancer.

    • In addition to trastuzumab, researchers are looking at newer drugs that target HER2 for advanced esophageal adenocarcinomas, as well as combining trastuzumab with radiation therapy.

    • Researchers are looking at drugs that block vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), particularly the use of ramucirumab combined with chemotherapy as the first treatment.

    • Recent studies looking a type of growth factor, called c-MET, did not show any benefit and is no longer a major area of research for esophageal cancer.

  • Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, is designed to boost the body's natural defenses to fight the cancer. It uses materials made either by the body or in a laboratory to improve, target, or restore immune system function. Learn more about the basics of immunotherapy.

  • Palliative care. Clinical trials are underway to find better ways of reducing symptoms and side effects of current esophageal cancer treatments in order to improve patients’ comfort and quality of life.

Looking for More About the Latest Research?

If you would like additional information about the latest areas of research regarding esophageal cancer, explore these related items that take you outside of this guide:

The next section in this guide is Coping with Treatment. It offers some guidance in how to cope with the physical, emotional, and social changes that cancer and its treatment can bring. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Esophageal Cancer - Coping with Treatment

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn more about coping with the physical, emotional, social, and financial effects of cancer and its treatment. This page includes several links outside of this guide to other sections of this website. To see other pages, use the menu.

Every cancer treatment can cause side effects or changes to your body and how you feel. For many reasons, people don’t experience the same side effects even when given the same treatment for the same type of cancer. This can make it hard to predict how you will feel during treatment.

As you prepare to start cancer treatment, it is normal to fear treatment-related side effects. It may help to know that your health care team will work to prevent and relieve side effects. Doctors call this part of cancer treatment “palliative care.” It is an important part of your treatment plan, regardless of your age or the stage of disease.

Coping with physical side effects

Common physical side effects from each treatment option for esophageal cancer are described within the Treatment Options section. Learn more about side effects of cancer and its treatment, along with ways to prevent or control them. Changes to your physical health depend on several factors, including the cancer’s stage, the length and dose of treatment, and your general health.

Sometimes, physical side effects can last after treatment ends. Doctors call these long-term side effects. They call side effects that occur months or years after treatment late effects. Treating long-term side effects and late effects is an important part of survivorship care. Learn more by reading the Follow-up Care section of this guide or talking with your doctor.

Coping with emotional and social effects

You can have emotional and social effects as well as physical effects after a cancer diagnosis. This may include dealing with difficult emotions, such as anxiety or anger, or managing your stress level. Sometimes, patients have problems expressing how they feel to their loved ones, or people don’t know what to say in return.

Patients and their families are encouraged to share their feelings with a member of their health care team. You can also find coping strategies for emotional and social effects in a separate section of this website. This section includes many resources for finding support and information to meet your needs.

Coping with financial effects

Cancer treatment can be expensive. It is often a big source of stress and anxiety for people with cancer and their families. In addition to treatment costs, many people find they have extra, unplanned expenses related to their care. For some people, the high cost stops them from following or completing their cancer treatment plan. This can put their health at risk and may lead to higher costs in the future. Learn more about managing financial considerations, in a separate part of this website.

Caring for a loved one with cancer

Family members and friends often play an important role in taking care of a person with esophageal cancer. This is called being a caregiver. Caregivers can provide physical, practical, and emotional support to the patient, even if they live far away.

Caregivers may have a range of responsibilities on a daily or as-needed basis. Below are some of the responsibilities caregivers take care of:

  • Providing support and encouragement

  • Giving medications

  • Helping manage symptoms and side effects

  • Coordinating medical appointments

  • Providing a ride to appointments

  • Assisting with meals

  • Helping with household chores

  • Handling insurance and billing issues

Learn more about caregiving.

Talking with your health care team about side effects

Before starting treatment, talk with your doctor about possible side effects. Ask:

  • Which side effects are most likely?

  • When are they are likely to happen?

  • What can we do to prevent or relieve them?

Be sure to tell your health care team about any side effects that happen during treatment and afterward, too. Tell them even if you don’t think the side effects are serious. This discussion should include physical, emotional, and social effects of cancer.

Also, ask how much care you may need at home and with daily tasks during and after treatment. This can help you make a caregiving plan.

The next section in this guide is Follow-up Care. It explains the importance of check-ups after cancer treatment is finished. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Esophageal Cancer - Follow-Up Care

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about your medical care after cancer treatment is completed, and why this follow-up care is important. To see other pages, use the menu.

Care for people diagnosed with cancer doesn’t end when active treatment has finished. Your health care team will continue to check to make sure the cancer has not returned, manage any side effects, and monitor your overall health. This is called follow-up care.

Your follow-up care may include regular physical examinations, medical tests, or both. Doctors want to keep track of your recovery in the months and years ahead.

Learn more about the importance of follow-up care.

Watching for recurrence

One goal of follow-up care is to check for a recurrence. Cancer recurs because small areas of cancer cells may remain undetected in the body. Over time, these cells may increase in number until they show up on test results or cause signs or symptoms. During follow-up care, a doctor familiar with your medical history can give you personalized information about your risk of recurrence. Your doctor will also ask specific questions about your health. Some people may have blood tests or imaging tests as part of regular follow-up care, but testing recommendations depend on several factors including the type and stage of cancer originally diagnosed and the types of treatment given. If the esophageal cancer is in remission, follow-up care may include CT scans and upper endoscopies (see Diagnosis) to watch for a possible recurrence.

Managing long-term and late side effects

Most people expect to experience side effects when receiving treatment. However, it is often surprising to survivors that some side effects may linger beyond the treatment period. These are called long-term side effects. In addition, other side effects called late effects may develop months or even years afterwards. Long-term and late effects can include both physical and emotional changes.

Talk with your doctor about your risk of developing such side effects based on the type of cancer, your individual treatment plan, and your overall health. If you had a treatment known to cause specific late effects, you may also have certain physical examinations, scans, or blood tests to help find and manage them. For example, people who have had an esophagectomy should sleep with the head of the bed elevated to avoid acid reflux, since the stomach has been surgically moved up into the chest.

Keeping personal health records

You and your doctor should work together to develop a personalized follow-up care plan. Be sure to ask about any concerns you have about your future physical or emotional health. ASCO offers forms to help create a treatment summary to keep track of the cancer treatment you received and develop a survivorship care plan once treatment is completed.

This is also a good time to decide who will lead your follow-up care. Some survivors continue to see their oncologist, while others transition back to the general care of their family doctor or another health care professional. This decision depends on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, side effects, health insurance rules, and your personal preferences.

If a doctor who was not directly involved in your cancer care will lead your follow-up care, be sure to share your cancer treatment summary and survivorship care plan forms with him or her, as well as all future health care providers. Details about your cancer treatment are very valuable to the health care professionals who will care for you throughout your lifetime.

The next section in this guide is Survivorship. It describes how to cope with challenges in everyday life after a cancer diagnosis. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Esophageal Cancer - Survivorship

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about how to with challenges in everyday life after a cancer diagnosis. To see other pages, use the menu.

What is survivorship?

The word “survivorship” means different things to different people. Common definitions include:

  • Having no signs of cancer after finishing treatment.

  • Living with, through, and beyond cancer. According to this definition, cancer survivorship begins at diagnosis and includes people who continue to have treatment over the long term, to either reduce the risk of recurrence or to manage chronic disease.

Survivorship is one of the most complicated parts of having cancer. This is because it is different for everyone.  

Survivors may experience a mixture of strong feelings, including joy, concern, relief, guilt, and fear. Some people say they appreciate life more after a cancer diagnosis and have gained a greater acceptance of themselves. Others become very anxious about their health and uncertain of how to cope with everyday life.

Survivors may feel some stress when frequent visits to the health care team end following treatment. Often, relationships built with the cancer care team provide a sense of security during treatment, and people miss this source of support. This may be especially true as new worries and challenges surface over time, such as any late effects of treatment, emotional challenges including fear of recurrence, sexuality and fertility concerns, and financial and workplace issues.

Every survivor has individual concerns and challenges. With any challenge, a good first step is being able to recognize your fears and talk about them. Effective coping requires:

  • Understanding the challenge you are facing,

  • Thinking through solutions,

  • Asking for and allowing the support of others, and

  • Feeling comfortable with the course of action you choose.

Many survivors find it helpful to join an in-person support group or an online community of survivors. This allows you to talk with people who have had similar first-hand experiences. Other options for finding support include talking with a friend or member of your health care team, individual counseling, or asking for assistance at the learning resource center of the center where you received treatment.

Changing role of caregivers

Family members and friends may also go through periods of transition. A caregiver plays a very important role in supporting a person diagnosed with cancer, providing physical, emotional, and practical care on a daily or as-needed basis. Many caregivers become focused on providing this support, especially if the treatment period lasts for many months or longer.

However, as treatment is completed, the caregiver's role often changes. Eventually, the need for caregiving related to the cancer diagnosis will become much less or come to an end. Caregivers can learn more about adjusting to life after caregiving in this article.

A new perspective on your health

For many people, survivorship serves as a strong motivator to make positive lifestyle changes.

People recovering from esophageal cancer are encouraged to follow established guidelines for good health, such as not smoking, limiting alcohol, eating well, and managing stress. Regular physical activity can help rebuild your strength and energy level. Your health care team can help you create an appropriate exercise plan based upon your needs, physical abilities, and fitness level. Learn more about making healthy lifestyle choices.

In addition, it is important to have recommended medical check-ups and tests (see Follow-up Care) to take care of your health. Cancer rehabilitation may also be recommended, and this could mean any of a wide range of services such as physical therapy, career counseling, pain management, nutritional planning, and/or emotional counseling. The goal of rehabilitation is to help people regain control over many aspects of their lives and remain as independent and productive as possible.

Talk with your doctor to develop a survivorship care plan that is best for your needs.

Looking for More Survivorship Resources?

For more information about cancer survivorship, explore these related items. Please note these links will take you to other sections of Cancer.Net:

  • ASCO Answers Cancer Survivorship Guide: Get this 44-page booklet that helps people transition into life after treatment. It includes blank treatment summary and survivorship care plan forms. The booklet is available as a PDF, so it is easy to print out.

  • Cancer.Net Patient Education Video: View a short video led by an ASCO expert that provides information about what comes next after finishing treatment.

  • Survivorship Resources: Cancer.Net offers an entire area of this website with resources to help survivors, including for survivors in different age groups.

The next section offers Questions to Ask the Doctor to help start conversations with your cancer care team. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Esophageal Cancer - Questions to Ask the Doctor

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some questions to ask your doctor or other members of your health care team, to help you better understand your diagnosis, treatment plan, and overall care. To see other pages, use the menu.

Talking often with the doctor is important to make informed decisions about your health care. These suggested questions are a starting point to help you learn more about your cancer care and treatment. You are also encouraged to ask additional questions that are important to you. You may want to print this list and bring it to your next appointment, or download Cancer.Net’s free mobile app for an e-list and other interactive tools to manage your care.

Questions to ask after getting a diagnosis

  • What type of esophageal cancer do I have?

  • Is the cancer located only in my esophagus?

  • What is the stage and grade of the disease? What does this mean?

  • Can you explain my pathology report (laboratory test results) to me?

Questions to ask about choosing a treatment and managing side effects

  • What are my treatment options?

  • What clinical trials are available me? Where are they located, and how do I find out more about them?

  • Are there radiation therapy and surgery options to treat the cancer?

  • Is surgery needed as part of treatment?

  • How experienced is the surgeon with this type of surgery?

  • Can chemotherapy control the cancer?

  • What treatment plan do you recommend? Why?

  • What is my prognosis?

  • What is the goal of each treatment? Is it to eliminate the cancer, help me feel better, or both?

  • What are the possible side effects of each treatment, both in the short term and the long term?

  • How will this treatment affect my daily life? Will I be able to work, exercise, and perform my usual activities?

  • Could this treatment affect my sex life? If so, how and for how long?

  • Could this treatment affect my ability to become pregnant or have children? If so, should I talk with a fertility specialist before cancer treatment begins?

  • Who will be part of my health care team, and what does each member do?

  • Who will be leading my overall treatment?

  • If I’m worried about managing the costs of cancer care, who can help me?

  • What support services are available to me? To my family?

  • Whom should I call for questions or problems?

  • Is there anything else I should be asking?

Questions to ask about having surgery

  • What type of surgery will I have? Will lymph nodes be removed?

  • How long will the operation take?

  • How long will I be in the hospital?

  • Can you describe what my recovery from surgery will be like?

  • What are the possible long-term effects and complications of having this surgery?

Questions to ask about having radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy

  • What type of treatment is recommended?

  • What is the goal of this treatment?

  • How long will it take to give this treatment?

  • What side effects can I expect during treatment?

  • What are the possible long-term effects of having this treatment?

  • What can be done to relieve the side effects?

Questions to ask about planning follow-up care

  • What is the chance that the cancer will come back? Should I watch for specific signs or symptoms?

  • What long-term side effects or late effects are possible based on the cancer treatment I received?

  • What follow-up tests will I need, and how often will I need them?

  • How do I get a treatment summary and survivorship care plan to keep in my personal records?

  • Who will be leading my follow-up care?

  • What survivorship support services are available to me? To my family?

The next section in this guide is Additional Resources. It offers some more resources on this website beyond this guide that may be helpful to you. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide. 

Esophageal Cancer - Additional Resources

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some helpful links to other areas of Cancer.Net that provide information about cancer care and treatment. This is the final page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Esophageal Cancer. To go back and review other pages, use the menu.

Cancer.Net includes many other sections about the medical and emotional aspects of cancer, both for the person diagnosed and their family members and friends. This website is meant to be a resource for you and your loved ones from the time of diagnosis, through treatment, and beyond. 

Beyond this guide, here are a few links to help you explore other parts of Cancer.Net:

This is the end of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Esophageal Cancer. Use the menu on the side of your screen to select another section to continue reading this guide.