Symptoms and diagnosis of Oesophagus (gullet) cancer


The symptoms of oesophageal cancer can include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Heartburn (acid reflux) that won't go away
  • Pain in your breastbone, back or throat
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Poor appetite
  • Frequent hiccoughs or belching
  • Ongoing cough

If you feel you may be at risk, first talk to your family doctor (GP) about your concerns. He or she may advise you to visit a specialist. Remember these symptoms can be caused by many conditions other than cancer. But do get them checked out by your doctor, especially if they go on for more than 4–6 weeks.


Testing for oesophageal cancer when you have no symptoms is called screening. There is no national oesophageal cancer screening programme in Ireland at present. If you are concerned about oesophageal cancer, talk to your GP.


Visit your family doctor (GP) first if you are worried about any symptoms. If your doctor has concerns about you, he or she will refer you to a hospital. There you will see a specialist who may arrange more tests. You may need some of the following tests:

  • Barium swallow
  • Endoscopy
  • Liver ultrasound scan
  • Endoscopy ultrasound

Barium swallow

A barium swallow is a special type of X-ray. You will be asked to drink a white chalky liquid called barium. As you swallow the liquid, X-rays are taken of 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.


During an endoscopy, a thin flexible tube is put into your oesophagus. This tube has a camera and a light attached to it, which lets your doctor see anything unusual inside your oesophagus. This test is also called an oesophagoscopy.
A small sample of the tissue inside your oesophagus can be taken during an endoscopy. This is called a biopsy.
Your doctor will spray the back of your throat with local anaesthetic before the test. This numbs the area. Also, if needed, your doctor can prescribe a mild sedative so that you are drowsy throughout the test.
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:

Liver ultrasound

An ultrasound scan is like the type of scan used on pregnant women. While lying on your back, a small amount of gel is placed on the area to be scanned. The radiographer or doctor then uses a small device to gently rub across the gel. This device is like the ‘mouse’ of a computer. It uses sound waves to form a picture of the tissues inside your body. The scan is not painful and should only take a few minutes.

Endoscopic ultrasound

This test is like an endoscopy. First a small device called an ultrasound probe is joined to the top of the endoscope tube. This probe then makes sound waves that gives your doctor a picture of the tissues inside your oesophagus.

Other tests

  • Blood tests
  • CT scan
  • PET scan
  • MRI scan

These scans can help to stage the cancer. This means finding out the size of the cancer and if it has spread anywhere else. This can help your doctor to decide on the right treatment for you.

Learn more about the above tests

Call our National Cancer Helpline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 7pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm