Dysphagia is the ‘first’ symptom of oesophageal cancer – expert

Cancer symptoms: Top 14 early signs to look out for

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Cancer prognosis improves with early detection, which makes symptom awareness front and centre. Worryingly, oesophageal cancer often causes signs that are “hard to spot”. Fortunately, a doctor shares the “first” red flag that could break the news of a tumour in your oesophagus.

The position of an oesophageal tumour, which starts in the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach, means that symptoms often crop up when you eat.

According to Dr Deborah Lee from Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, “the first” symptom of oesophageal cancer is usually dysphagia.

Dysphagia, i.e. difficulty swallowing, describes taking more time and effort to move food or liquid from your mouth to your stomach.

Dr Lee said: “Oesophageal cancer usually starts at the lower end of the oesophagus. 

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“The cancer develops there probably because it is the site of acid reflux, and it grows slowly in this very acidic environment.

“As it grows, it blocks the lower portion of the oesophagus, meaning it becomes hard to swallow. 

“Food seems to stick in the throat, sometimes, causing discomfort… and coughing, feeling sick, vomiting and dribbling saliva.”

Other food-related symptoms like nausea and indigestion can start cropping up as well.

Your appetite can also take a hit and you might start losing weight as a result.

Apart from these symptoms, other tell-tale signs of oesophageal cancer include:

  • Heartburn or acid reflux
  • Symptoms of indigestion (such as burping a lot)
  • Cough that is not getting better
  • Hoarse voice
  • Feeling tired or having no energy
  • Pain in your throat or the middle of your chest (especially when swallowing).

If you have any symptoms of oesophageal cancer, you should “see your GP without delay”.

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Dr Lee said: “If your GP is concerned, they will refer you to the hospital to have an endoscopy – a telescope in a thin tube which is passed through your mouth and down into the oesophagus to take a closer look.

“A biopsy – a small sample of tissue – can be taken from any abnormal areas and sent to the lab for closer inspection.

“Further tests such as a CT scan, or an endoscopic ultrasound scan may be needed.

“Oesophageal cancer is treated with surgery to remove the tumour and sometimes insertion of a stent, to hold the oesophagus open and allow the passage of food and liquids. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy may be required.”

How to reduce your risk of oesophageal cancer

From quitting smoking to cutting back on alcohol, there are many lifestyle tweaks that could help reduce your risk of oesophageal cancer.

Dr Lee said: “It’s time to stop smoking, minimise your alcohol intake, and lose weight.

“You also need to eat a healthy diet which contains large amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables. Make sure any reflux is properly treated. Don’t drink excessively hot drinks.

“Your GP can provide advice and support to help you achieve all these things. Act now before it’s too late.”

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