Symptoms and diagnosis of oesophageal cancer

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Symptoms of oesophageal cancer 

  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Heartburn (acid reflux) that won't go away
  • Pain in your breastbone, back or throat
  • Weight loss
  • Poor appetite
  • Ongoing cough
  • Vomiting or regurgitation of food (food that comes back up when swallowed)

All these symptoms can be caused by other common conditions, but it’s important to go to the GP and get any unusual changes checked, especially if they go on for more than 4–6 weeks. 

Can I be screened for oesophageal cancer?

Testing for oesophageal cancer when you have no symptoms is called screening. There is no national screening programme for oesophageal cancer. This is because there isn’t a test sensitive enough to test for oesophageal cancer, the cost would be too high and the test itself would only pick up a small number of oesophageal cancers. 

If you are worried about your risk of oesophageal cancer, talk to your family doctor.

Barrett’s oesophagus

Patients who have Barrett’s oesophagus are screened regularly. This is because Barrett’s oesophagus can lead to a type of oesophageal cancer called adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus. The most accurate way to test for the presence of oesophageal cancer is by carrying out an endoscopy (a tube and camera put down your throat into your oesophagus).  

Diagnosing oesophageal cancer

Tests with your GP

Your family doctor (GP) will talk to you about your symptoms. Your GP will refer you to hospital if they think you need more tests.

Tests at the hospital  

  • Barium swallow: X-rays are taken of your oesophagus as you drink a white chalky liquid called barium. The liquid shows up any abnormal areas in your oesophagus. This test normally takes about 15 minutes and is not painful. Even though the liquid tastes chalky, it should not make you feel sick.
  • Endoscopy: A thin flexible tube with a camera and a light is put into your oesophagus so the doctor can check for unusual changes. 
  • Liver ultrasound scan: A device like a microphone passed over the area to give a picture of the tissues inside your body. It can show any abnormal changes. 
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS): An ultrasound probe is passed through a tube into your body through your mouth. It can take ultrasound pictures from inside your oesophagus.
  • Biopsy: This means taking a sample of the cells in the oesophagus and looking at them under a microscope. This is usually done during an endoscopy or EUS.

A gastroenterologist is a doctor who specialises in treating problems with the digestive system.

If you have been waiting for longer than 3 months for your endoscopy, contact the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF). This is a scheme set up to reduce waiting times for tests and operations. You may be referred to a private hospital for endoscopy free of charge. For more information, contact 1890 720 820 or visit the website:

For more information

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1800 200 700

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