Cancer of the oesophagus


Cancer of the oesophagus
Cancer of the oesophagus
  • Oesophageal cancer is a cancer that's found anywhere in the oesophagus, sometimes called the gullet or food pipe.
  • The oesophagus connects your mouth to your stomach.
  • How serious oesophageal cancer is depends on where it is in the oesophagus, how big it is, if it has spread and your general health.


It's important to get any symptoms of oesophageal cancer checked as soon as possible.


There are many possible symptoms of oesophageal cancer, but they might be hard to spot.

They can affect your digestion, such as:

Other symptoms include:

  • a cough that is not getting better
  • a hoarse voice
  • loss of appetite or losing weight without trying to
  • feeling tired or having no energy
  • pain in your throat or the middle of your chest, especially when swallowing
  • black poo or coughing up blood (although these are uncommon)

If you have another condition, such as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, you may get symptoms like these regularly.

You might find you get used to them. But it's important to be checked by a GP if your symptoms change, get worse, or do not feel normal for you.

Ask for an urgent GP appointment or get advice from NHS 111 Wales or call 111:

  • you're being sick for more than 2 days
  • your poo is black or dark red
  • you have symptoms that you are worried about, but are not sure where to get help

111 Wales will tell you what to do. They can arrange a phone call from a nurse or doctor if you need one.

See a GP if you have:

  • problems swallowing
  • lost a noticeable amount of weight over the last 6 to 12 months without trying
  • other symptoms of oesophageal cancer that get worse 
  • a condition that causes symptoms with your digestion that are not getting bette using your usual treatments


These symptoms are very common and can be caused by many different conditions.

Having them does not definitely mean you have oesophageal cancer. But it's important to get them checked by a GP.

This is because if they're caused by cancer, finding it early makes it more treatable.

What happens at the GP appointment

The GP may feel your neck and tummy.

They might arrange for you to have a blood test.

The GP may refer you to see a specialist in hospital for more tests if they think you have a condition that needs to be investigated.

The GP may also refer you straight to hospital for a test to look inside your oesophagus.

This may be an urgent referral, usually within 2 weeks, if you have certain symptoms. This does not definitely mean you have cancer.

Find out more

Cancer Research UK: referral to a specialist for symptoms that could be caused by oesophageal cancer

Who can get it

Anyone can get oesophageal cancer. It's not always clear what causes it.

You might be more likely to get it if you:

  • are over the age of 75, it's not very common in people under 45
  • are a man
  • have certain medical conditions, such as long-term, severe acid reflux or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, or a condition called Barrett's oesophagus

Many oesophageal cancers are also linked to your lifestyle. For example you're more likely to get it if you're overweight, smoke or drink too much alcohol

Barrett's oesophagus

Barrett's oesophagus is a medical condition where some of the cells in your oesophagus grow abnormally.

If you have Barrett's oesophagus you are slightly more likely to get oesophageal cancer. But this is not common. It is sometimes called a pre-cancerous condition.

Barrett’s oesophagus often does not have any symptoms. But you may have symptoms of indigestion and heartburn.

How to reduce your chance of getting oesophageal cancer

You cannot always prevent oesophageal cancer. But making healthy changes can lower your chances of getting it.


  • try to lose weight if you are overweight
  • let hot drinks cool down a bit before drinking, so they do not damage your oesophagus
  • try to cut down on alcohol – avoid drinking more than 14 units a week
  • try to quit smoking

It's important to get any symptoms of oesophageal cancer checked by a GP.

Anyone can get oesophageal cancer, even if you do not think you have a higher chance of getting it.


Camera test

A GP or specialist will probably refer you for a test to look inside your oesophagus.

This test is called a gastroscopy (a type of endoscopy). It looks for any problems in your oesophagus or stomach, including oesophageal cancer.

During a gastroscopy:

  • A long, thin, flexible tube with a small camera inside (called an endoscope) will be put into your mouth and down your oesophagus.
  • A specialist will use the camera in the endoscope to look for any problems.
  • A small sample of cells (called a biopsy) may be collected during the procedure. These cells will be sent to a laboratory to check for cancer.

The test should take around 10 to 15 minutes but you might be in hospital for several hours.

It should not be painful, but you might find it uncomfortable.

You may be offered things to make you more comfortable and make the test easier, such as:

  • a spray to numb the back of your throat (local anaesthetic)
  • sedation – medicine given through a small tube in your arm to help you relax
  • putting you to sleep (general anaesthetic)

A gastroscopy can also help find problems in other nearby organs. Such as your stomach and the first part of the bowels (small intestine).

Getting your results

You should get the results of a gastroscopy and biopsy within 2 weeks.

Try not to worry if your results are taking longer to get to you. It does not definitely mean anything is wrong.

You can call the hospital or GP if you are worried. They should be able to update you.

A specialist will explain what the results mean and what will happen next. You may want to bring someone with you for support

.If you're told you have oesophageal cancer

Being told you have oesophageal cancer can feel overwhelming. You may be feeling anxious about what will happen next.

It can help to bring someone with you to any appointments you have.

A group of specialists will look after you throughout your diagnosis, treatment and beyond.

Your team will include a clinical nurse specialist who will be your main point of contact during and after treatment.

You can ask them any questions you have.


Macmillan Cancer Support has a free helpline (0808 808 00 00) that's open every day from 8am to 8pm.

They're there to listen if you have anything you want to talk about.

Next steps

If you've been told you have oesophageal cancer, you will need more tests.

These, along with the camera test, will help the specialists find out the size of the cancer and how far it's spread (called the stage).

You may need:

You may not have all these tests.

The specialists will use the results of these tests and work with you to decide on the best treatment plan for you.

Find out more

Macmillan Cancer Support: information and support if you've just been diagnosed with cancer.


Oesophageal cancer is often treatable. But it can be difficult to treat.

The treatment you have will depend on:

  • the size and type of oesophageal cancer you have
  • where it is
  • if it has spread
  • your general health

It may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and targeted medicines and immunotherapy

The specialist care team looking after you will:

  • explain the treatments, benefits and side effects
  • work with you to create a treatment plan that is best for you
  • help you manage any side effects, including changes to your diet

You'll have regular check-ups during and after any treatments. You may also have tests and scans.

If you have any symptoms or side effects that you are worried about, talk to your specialists. You do not need to wait for your next check-up.


If oesophageal cancer is found early and it has not spread, you may be able to have surgery to remove it.

Surgery will remove part or, in a small number of cases, most of the oesophagus. They may also need to remove parts of other organs around the oesophagus, such as the top of the stomach.

Find out more

Macmillan Cancer Support: surgery for oesophageal cancer


Chemotherapy uses medicines to kill cancer cells.

You may have chemotherapy for oesophageal cancer:

  • before surgery to help make the cancer smaller
  • after surgery to get rid of any remaining cancer and help stop the cancer coming back
  • with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy) to treat early cancer, or if you are not able to have surgery
  • to help control and improve the symptoms of advanced cancer


Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays of radiation to kill cancer cells.

You may have radiotherapy for oesophageal cancer:

  • to treat early cancer, usually with chemotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)
  • to help control and improve the symptoms of advanced cancer

Find out more

Macmillan Cancer Support: treatment for oesophageal cancer

Targeted medicines and immunotherapy

Targeted medicines and immunotherapy aim to stop the cancer growing and help your immune system attack the cancer.

You might have treatment with targeted medicines or immunotherapy:

  • if the cancer has spread to another part of the body
  • if the cancer cannot be cured
  • to lower the risk of the cancer coming back after surgery to remove it

What happens if you've been told your cancer cannot be cured

If you have advanced oesophageal cancer it might be very hard to treat. It may not be possible to cure the cancer.

If this is the case, the aim of your treatment will be to limit the cancer and its symptoms, and help you live longer.

Finding out the cancer cannot be cured can be very hard news to take in.

You will be referred to a special team of doctors and nurses called the palliative care team or symptom control team.

They will work with you to help manage your symptoms and make you feel more comfortable.

The clinical nurse specialist or palliative care team can also help you and your loved ones get any support you need.

Find out more

Macmillan Cancer Support: end of life care

Living with

Where to find help and support

You and your loved ones will be supported throughout your treatment by a group of specialists.

The clinical nurse specialist, or another member of your specialist team will be able to give you information on local support services that you may find helpful.

There are also national cancer charities that offer support and information about oesophageal cancer.

Oesphageal Patients Association (OPA)

Information and support for anyone affected by oesophageal cancer

Macmillan Cancer Support

Information and support for anyone affected by cancer.

Helpline: 0808 808 00 00
Macmillan Cancer Support: support line service
Macmillan Cancer Support: online forum
Macmillan Cancer Support: find local support services

Cancer Research UK

Information and support for anyone affected by cancer.

Nurse helpline: 0808 800 4040
Cancer Research UK: ask a nurse service
Cancer Research UK: online cancer chat forum
Cancer Research UK: find a clinical trial service


Practical, emotional and social support for anyone affected by cancer.

Helpline: 0300 123 1801
Maggie's: find cancer support near you
Maggie's: cancer support

Marie Curie

Care and support for anyone affected by a terminal illness.

Helpline: 0800 090 2309
Marie Curie: patient services

The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS UK NHS website
Last Updated: 07/03/2024 11:17:18