Treatment for Oesophagus (gullet) cancer

Main treatments

Many patients receive a combination of treatments. For example, chemotherapy or radiotherapy can be used to shrink the tumour before surgery. Your treatment will depend on the stage, grade and type of cancer cells you have. The stage looks at the size of your cancer and if it has spread from where it started. The grade of the cancer can tell if your cancer grows quickly or slowly. You can have a low, moderate or high grade cancer. The main treatments for cancer of the oesophagus are:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiotherapy

Surgery

Surgery is the most common treatment for oesophageal cancer. The aim of surgery is to remove the part of the oesophagus with the cancer cells. Surgery is possible if the tumour is only found in one section of the oesophagus. For more information, see our Understanding Cancer of the Oesophagus booklet (pdf 3.96MB) or speak to a specialist nurse on the National Cancer Helpline on Freefone 1800 200 700.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to cure or control cancer. Chemotherapy drugs can be given on their own or with each other. Many oesophageal cancer patients receive a combination of two or three chemotherapy drugs.
Chemotherapy can also be given before or after radiotherapy and surgery. These drugs can be injected into your bloodstream or given in tablet form.
Some chemotherapy drugs used to treat oesophageal cancer are:

See Understanding Chemotherapy booklet, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information, or learn more about chemotherapy here.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. The rays are aimed directly at the tumour in your oesophagus to kill or shrink the cancer cells. The type of radiotherapy often used for oesophageal cancer is called external beam radiotherapy. Sometimes a different type of radiotherapy is used. This is called brachytherapy. This is given by putting a radioactive metal rod into your oesophagus. This gives a high dose of radiation from inside the oesophagus, causing little or no damage to nearby tissues.

For more information please see our Understanding Radiotherapy booklet, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, or learn more about radiotherapy  here.

Advanced treatment

Advanced cancer means that your cancer has spread from the area where it first started. It can spread into the area around the oesophagus. This is called local spread. It can also spread to other areas of the body including the liver and lungs. This is called secondary cancer or metastatic cancer.
It is usually not possible to cure advanced cancer. Treatment is given to control the cancer and to improve your quality of life. It can do this for a long time. This is called palliative treatment. It can involve surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
The palliative care team may come to see you at this time. This team are there to help with any symptoms that may occur and to support you and your family through your treatment.

Side effects

The type of side-effects you get will depend on the type of treatment, the dose, the duration and your own general health. Some treatments may cause symptoms like lowered resistance to infection, nausea, loss of appetite or hair loss. Many treatments cause fatigue. Your doctor will discuss any likely side-effects with you before you have your treatment.

For more about coping with side-effects, see the booklets Understanding ChemotherapyUnderstanding RadiotherapyCoping with FatigueDiet and Cancer and Understanding Cancer and Complementary Therapies, all available to download under the "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page.

Learn more about side effects

Clinical trials

If a treatment looks like it might be helpful, it is given to patients in research studies called clinical trials. Trials may be taking place at the hospital you are attending. If you are interested in taking part, talk to your doctor. He or she can tell you if the trial would suit you or not.

Learn more about clinical trials