In This Section      

Warning Signs of Esophageal Cancer

Most warning signs of esophageal cancer are associated with problems related to eating, drinking, swallowing and digestion. In most cases, esophageal cancer doesn’t cause symptoms until it has reached an advanced stage.

At Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, our specialists perform thorough evaluations, helping to detect esophageal cancer as early as possible. When a doctor can identify esophageal cancer in the early stages, successful treatment is more likely.

Esophageal Cancer Risk Factors

Factors that can increase your risk of esophageal cancer include:

  • Smoking
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Chronic heartburn or acid reflux
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) 
  • Barrett’s esophagus, a condition that sometimes develops in people with GERD
  • Achalasia, a rare disorder of muscles in the lower esophagus

Esophageal Cancer Symptoms

Most esophageal cancer cases aren’t discovered until they are in advanced stages, when symptoms are noticeable. However, many of these symptoms are also caused by other, more common conditions. It is important to receive an accurate diagnosis from a physician if you suspect you may be at risk. Learn more about esophageal cancer prevention.

Trouble Swallowing

The most common symptom of esophageal cancer is trouble swallowing, especially a feeling of food stuck in the throat. With some patients, choking on food also occurs. These symptoms gradually worsen over time, with an increase in pain on swallowing, as your esophagus narrows from the growing cancer.

If you have recently changed your eating habits to avoid trouble swallowing — such as taking smaller bites, eating softer food, or avoiding solid food entirely — you may be at risk.

Chronic Chest Pain

If you suffer from chronic heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), you’re already familiar with a pain that feels like burning in the middle of your chest. Some patients experience chest pain a few seconds after swallowing, when food or liquid reaches the site of the cancer in the esophagus.

Weight Loss Without Trying

Roughly 50 percent of people with esophageal cancer experience unexplained weight loss. This can be due to eating less due to swallowing problems, or a decreased appetite due to the cancer.

Persistent Coughing or Hoarseness

Developing a hoarse, scratchy voice or a cough that doesn’t go away can also indicate the presence of esophageal cancer. 

Diagnosing Esophageal Cancer

Digestive problems are often the first sign of esophageal cancer. Because of this, your gastroenterologist (a physician who specializes in diseases of the digestive system) may be the first doctor to suspect esophageal cancer. Our gastroenterologists work collaboratively with our esophageal cancer specialists, ensuring that you receive a thorough diagnostic evaluation. Learn more about our expertise in esophageal cancer diagnosis.

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