Surgery is the most common treatment for esophageal cancer. Usually, the surgeon removes the tumor along with all or a portion of the esophagus, nearby lymph nodes and other tissue in the area. An operation to remove the esophagus is called an esophagectomy.
The surgeon connects the remaining healthy part of the esophagus to the stomach so that the patient is still able to swallow. The surgeon may also widen the opening between the stomach and the small intestine to allow stomach contents to pass more easily into the small intestine.
Sometimes surgery is done after other treatment is finished.
Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells. The anticancer drugs used to treat esophageal cancer travel throughout the body and are usually given by injection into a vein or intravenously.
Chemotherapy may be combined with radiation therapy as primary treatment, instead of surgery, or to shrink the tumor before surgery.
Laser therapy is the use of high-intensity light to destroy tumor cells. Laser therapy affects the cells only in the treated area. Laser therapy is used to destroy cancerous tissue and relieve a blockage in the esophagus when the cancer cannot be removed by surgery. The relief of a blockage can help to reduce symptoms, especially swallowing problems.
Photodynamic therapy (PDT), a type of laser therapy, involves the use of drugs that are absorbed by cancer cells. When exposed to a special light, the drugs become active and destroy cancer cells. Your doctor may use PDT to relieve symptoms of esophageal cancer, such as difficulty swallowing.
Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, involves the use of high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells in the treated area only. The radiation may come from a machine outside the body — external radiation — or from radioactive materials placed in or near the tumor, called internal radiation.
A plastic tube may be inserted into the esophagus to keep it open during radiation therapy. This procedure is called intraluminal intubation and dilation.
Radiation therapy may be used alone or combined with chemotherapy as primary treatment instead of or before surgery, especially if the size or location of the tumor would make an operation difficult. Even if the tumor cannot be removed by surgery or destroyed entirely by radiation therapy, radiation therapy can often help relieve pain and make swallowing easier.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.