To help find the cause of symptoms, your doctor will evaluate your medical history and perform a physical exam. Your doctor will likely recommend a chest X-ray and other diagnostic tests. These tests may include the following:
- Barium swallow — Also called an esophagram, a barium swallow is a series of X-rays of the esophagus. You drink a liquid containing barium, which coats the inside of your esophagus. The barium causes changes in the shape of the esophagus to show up on the X-rays.
- Gastroesophagoscopy — Also called endoscopy, this is an examination of the inside of the esophagus and stomach using a thin, lighted tube called an endoscope. An anesthetic, a substance that causes loss of feeling or awareness, is usually used during this procedure. If an abnormal area is found, your doctor can collect cells and tissue through the endoscope for a biopsy.
- Biopsy — Biopsy is a tissue sample for examination by a pathologist to make a diagnosis.
If the diagnosis is esophageal cancer, your doctor will determine the stage or extent of disease. Staging is a careful attempt to find out whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to what parts of the body. Knowing the stage of the disease helps the doctor plan treatments. Listed below are descriptions of the four stages of esophageal cancer.
- Stage I: The cancer is found only in the top layers of cells lining the esophagus.
- Stage II: The cancer involves deeper layers of the lining of the esophagus, or it has spread to nearby lymph nodes. The cancer has not spread to other parts of the body.
- Stage III: The cancer has invaded more deeply into the wall of the esophagus or has spread to tissues or lymph nodes near the esophagus. It has not spread to other parts of the body.
- Stage IV: The cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Esophageal cancer can spread almost anywhere in the body, including the liver, lungs, brain and bones.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.