Esophagus cancers are usually found because of signs or symptoms a person is having. If esophagus cancer is suspected, exams and tests will be needed to confirm the diagnosis. If cancer is found, further tests will be done to help determine the extent (stage) of the cancer.
If you have symptoms that might be caused by esophageal cancer, the doctor will ask about your medical history to check for possible risk factors and to learn more about your symptoms.
Your doctor will also examine you to look for possible signs of esophageal cancer and other health problems. He or she will probably pay special attention to your neck and chest areas.
If the results of the exam are abnormal, your doctor probably will order tests to help find the problem. You may also be referred to a gastroenterologist (a doctor specializing in digestive system diseases) for further tests and treatment.
Imaging tests use x-rays, magnetic fields, sound waves, or radioactive substances to create pictures of the inside of your body. Imaging tests might be done for a number of reasons both before and after a diagnosis of esophageal cancer, including:
In this test, a thick, chalky liquid called barium is swallowed to coat the walls of the esophagus. X-rays of the esophagus are then taken, which the barium outlines clearly. This test can be done by itself, or as a part of a series of x-rays that includes the stomach and part of the intestine, called an upper gastrointestinal (GI) series. A barium swallow test can show any abnormal areas in the normally smooth surface of the inner lining of the esophagus.
This is often the first test done to see what is causing a problem with swallowing. Even small, early cancers can often be seen using this test. Early cancers can look like small round bumps or flat, raised areas (called plaques), while advanced cancers look like large irregular areas and cause a narrowing of the width of the esophagus.
This test can also be used to diagnose one of the more serious complications of esophageal cancer called a tracheo-esophageal fistula. This occurs when the tumor destroys the tissue between the esophagus and the trachea (windpipe) and creates a hole connecting them. Anything that is swallowed can then pass from the esophagus into the windpipe and lungs. This can lead to frequent coughing, gagging, or even pneumonia. This problem can be helped with surgery or an endoscopy procedure.
A barium swallow only shows the shape of the inner lining of the esophagus, so it can’t be used to determine how far a cancer may have spread outside of the esophagus.
The CT scan uses x-rays to produce detailed cross-sectional images of your body. CT scans are not usually used to diagnose esophageal cancer, but they can help show where it is in the esophagus and if it has spread to nearby organs and lymph nodes (bean-sized collections of immune cells to which cancers often spread first) or to distant parts of the body. The CT scan can help to determine whether surgery is a good treatment option.
A CT scanner has been described as a large donut, with a narrow table that slides in and out of the middle opening. You will need to lie still on the table while the scan is being done. CT scans take longer than regular x-rays, and you might feel a bit confined by the ring while the pictures are being taken. Instead of taking one picture, like a standard x-ray, a CT scanner takes many pictures as it rotates around you. A computer then combines these pictures into an image of a slice of your body.
Before the test, you may be asked to drink 1 to 2 pints of a liquid called oral contrast. This helps outline the esophagus and intestines so that certain areas are not mistaken for tumors. If you are having any trouble swallowing, you need to tell your doctor before the scan. You might also receive an IV (intravenous) line through which a different kind of contrast dye (IV contrast) is injected. This helps better outline structures in your body.
The injection can cause some flushing (redness and warm feeling, especially in the face). Some people are allergic to the dye and get hives. Rarely, more serious reactions like trouble breathing and low blood pressure can occur. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have any allergies or have ever had a reaction to any contrast material used for x-rays. You can be given medicine to help prevent and treat allergic reactions.
CT-guided needle biopsy: CT scans can also be used to guide a biopsy needle precisely into a suspected area of cancer spread. For this procedure, you remain on the CT scanning table while the doctor advances a biopsy needle through the skin and toward the tumor. CT scans are repeated until the needle is within the mass. A needle biopsy sample is then removed to be looked at under a microscope.