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Oesophageal cancer occurs when the cells that make up the lining of the oesophagus (also often referred to as the gullet) change so that they grow more than they should. This can form a lump or a narrowing in the oesophagus that may stop it working normally, causing a degree of blockage. Cancer can also spread and affect the glands or lymph nodes nearby, as well as spreading further to other organs around the body. Oesophageal cancer can cause a variety of symptoms which are explained below.

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Image credit: Cancer Research UK Uploader (2016)

Difficulty swallowing

Patients may experience difficulty eating and drinking. The medical term for this is dysphagia. This may vary day-to-day, but usually swallowing will get slowly more difficult as time goes on. Most patients find it harder to swallow solids, often finding bread or meat the most difficult to get down. Some people find that food gets stuck, and they have to wait for it either to go down further into the stomach or they bring it back up.

Heartburn or pain

Patients may experience a burning or achy sensation in the middle of the chest behind their breast bone or in the upper part of the abdomen or tummy. Sometimes this can be severe and people report feeling pain in this area. However, this is a very common symptom in people in general, not just people with oesophageal cancer, with up to 20% of the population suffering indigestion symptoms each week.

Pain on swallowing

Patients may experience pain in the middle of the chest, behind the breast bone, when they swallow food or drink. The medical term for this is odynophagia. In addition some people may get severe pains from spasms of the oesophagus.

Bleeding and anaemia

Cancer in the oesophagus can bleed. Sometimes this bleeding is so slow that it cannot be seen. However, it may cause enough blood loss that a person becomes anaemic. This may cause a feeling of tiredness and lethargy, and a person may get out of breath more easily than normal. In other patients, cancer can cause more noticeable bleeding which may resulting in vomiting up blood, or a patient's stool (or faeces) may turn very dark, smelly and become sticky like tar.

Poor appetite and weight loss

Non-specific but relatively common symptoms of oesophageal cancer include having a poor appetite, not wanting to eat, and unintentionally losing weight.