Tests for Esophageal Cancer

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Tests for Esophageal Cancer

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.

Medical history and physical exam

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 will probably 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 to look for esophagus cancer

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 many reasons, such as:

  • To help find a suspicious area that might be cancer
  • To learn if and how far cancer has spread
  • To help determine if the treatment is working
  • To look for possible signs of cancer coming back after treatment

Barium swallow

In this test, a thick, chalky liquid called barium is swallowed to coat the walls of the esophagus. When x-rays are then taken, the barium clearly outlines the esophagus. 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, but it can’t be used to determine how far a cancer may have spread outside of the esophagus.

This is sometimes 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 can cause narrowing of the inside 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.

Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan

A CT scan uses x-rays to produce detailed cross-sectional images of your body. This test can help tell if esophageal cancer 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.

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. If you are having any trouble swallowing, you need to tell your doctor before the scan.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan

Like CT scans, MRI scans provide detailed images of soft tissues in the body. But MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays. A contrast material called gadolinium may be injected into a vein before the scan to see details better. MRI can be used to look at abnormal areas in the brain and spinal cord that might be due to cancer spread.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

PET scans usually use a form of radioactive sugar (known as fluorodeoxyglucose or FDG) that is injected into the blood. Normal cells use different amounts of the sugar, depending on how fast they are growing. Cancer cells, which grow quickly, are more likely to absorb larger amounts of the radioactive sugar than normal cells. These areas of radioactivity can be seen on a PET scan using a special camera.

The picture from a PET scan is not as detailed as a CT or MRI scan, but it provides helpful information about whether abnormal areas seen on these other tests are likely to be cancer or not.

If you have already been diagnosed with cancer, your doctor may use this test to see if the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body. A PET scan can also be useful if your doctor thinks the cancer may have spread but doesn’t know where.

PET/CT scan: Some machines can do both a PET and CT scan at the same time. This lets the doctor compare areas of higher radioactivity on the PET scan with the more detailed picture of that area on the CT scan.

An endoscope is a flexible, narrow tube with a tiny video camera and light on the end that is used to look inside the body. Tests that use endoscopes can help diagnose esophageal cancer or determine the extent of its spread.

Upper endoscopy

This is an important test for diagnosing esophageal cancer. During an upper endoscopy, you are sedated (made sleepy) and then the doctor passes an endoscope down your throat and into the esophagus and stomach. The camera is connected to a monitor, which lets the doctor see any abnormal areas in the wall of the esophagus clearly.

The doctor can use special instruments through the scope to remove (biopsy) samples from any abnormal areas. These samples are sent to the lab to see if they contain cancer.

If the esophageal cancer is blocking the opening (called the lumen) of the esophagus, certain instruments can be used to help enlarge the opening to help food and liquid pass.

Upper endoscopy can give the doctor important information about the size and spread of the tumor, which can be used to help determine if the tumor can be removed with surgery.

Endoscopic ultrasound

This test is usually done at the same time as the upper endoscopy. For an endoscopic ultrasound, a probe that gives off sound waves is at the end of an endoscope. This allows the probe to get very close to tumors in the esophagus. This test is very useful in determining the size of an esophageal cancer and how far it has grown into nearby areas. It can also help show if nearby lymph nodes might be affected by the cancer. If enlarged lymph nodes are seen on the ultrasound, the doctor can pass a thin, hollow needle through the endoscope to get biopsy samples of them. This helps the doctor decide if the tumor can be removed with surgery.


This exam may be done for cancer in the upper part of the esophagus to see if it has spread to the windpipe (trachea) or the tubes leading from the windpipe into the lungs (bronchi).

Thoracoscopy and laparoscopy

These exams let the doctor see lymph nodes and other organs near the esophagus inside the chest (by thoracoscopy) or the abdomen (by laparoscopy) through a hollow lighted tube.

These procedures are done in an operating room while you are under general anesthesia (in a deep sleep). A small incision (cut) is made in the side of the chest wall (for thoracoscopy) or the abdomen (for laparoscopy). Sometimes more than one cut is made. The doctor then inserts a thin, lighted tube with a small video camera on the end through the incision to view the space around the esophagus. The surgeon can pass thin tools into the space to remove lymph nodes and biopsy samples to see if the cancer has spread. This information is often important in deciding whether a person is likely to benefit from surgery.

Lab tests of biopsy samples

Usually if a suspected esophageal cancer is found on endoscopy or an imaging test, it is biopsied. In a biopsy, the doctor removes a small piece of tissue with a special instrument passed through the scope. See Testing Biopsy and Cytology Specimens for Cancer to learn more about the types of biopsies, how the tissue is used in the lab to diagnose cancer, and what the results may show.

HER2 testing: If esophageal cancer is found but is too advanced for surgery, your biopsy samples may be tested for the HER2 gene or protein. Some people with esophageal cancer have too much of the HER2 protein on the surface of their cancer cells, which helps the cells grow. A drug that targets the HER2 protein called trastuzumab (Herceptin ® ) may help treat these cancers when used along with chemotherapy. Only cancers that have too much of the HER2 gene or protein are likely to be affected by this drug, which is why doctors may test tumor samples for it. (See Targeted Therapy for Esophageal Cancer.)

Blood tests

Your doctor might order certain blood tests to help determine if you have esophageal cancer.

Complete blood count (CBC): This test measures the different types of cells in your blood. It can show if you have anemia (too few red blood cells). Some people with esophageal cancer become anemic because the tumor has been bleeding.

Liver enzymes: You may also have a blood test to check your liver function, because esophageal cancer can spread to the liver.

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