Doctors may perform endoscopies to diagnose esophageal cancer. They may also order laboratory tests and other imaging tests, such as MRI and CT scans, to confirm the diagnosis and determine whether the cancer has spread.

This can aid them in creating a personalized treatment plan to help relieve symptoms and treat esophageal cancer most effectively.

This article discusses the tests for diagnosing esophageal cancer, how they work, who may need screening for esophageal cancer, and more.

Closeup of an endoscope
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To diagnose esophageal cancer, doctors may need to perform imaging tests to look for atypical growths in the body. The imaging test that doctors may use to diagnose esophageal cancer include the following:


During an upper endoscopy, the doctor will insert a thin tube called an endoscope into the mouth and down the esophagus. The endoscope has a light and camera on the end of it to allow the doctor to see inside the body. The images it collects get displayed on a monitor for the doctor to review.

An endoscope can help the doctor locate the cancer and perform a biopsy. During a biopsy, the doctor collects a sample of tissue for testing in a laboratory.

Learn more about endoscopy.

Computed tomography (CT) scan

A CT scan is an imaging test that can produce a detailed picture of the body. It can help a doctor determine whether esophageal cancer has spread to other areas of the body, including nearby organs and lymph nodes.

Learn more about CT scans.

Barium swallow test

During this type of imaging test, a person has to swallow a thick, chalky liquid called barium. While they are swallowing this substance, a radiographer will perform an X-ray.

Barium can produce an outline of any atypical formation in the esophagus. It is possible that it can show cancer in the early stage.

However, this test cannot determine whether cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Learn more about barium swallow.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

An MRI scan can help doctors examine the soft tissues of the human body.

Doctors can use this test to diagnose cancer that has spread to the brain or the spinal cord.

Learn more about MRI.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

Doctors may perform a PET scan in combination with a CT scan. Before performing a PET scan, doctors inject a slightly radioactive substance into the body.

The radioactive material tends to collect in the cancerous cells around the body. The PET scan can produce an image of the human body highlighting the areas in which cancerous cells are situated. This can help determine whether cancer has spread.

Learn more about PET scans.

Doctors may perform laboratory tests to diagnose esophageal cancer. These may include blood tests to verify any atypical values in the blood count.

The doctor may also order a biopsy. A biopsy involves removing a sample of the suspected cancerous tissue for laboratory analysis. In the laboratory, the tissue sample is tested with various enzymes.

The reaction of the sample with these substances can help determine the type and origin of many health conditions, including cancer.

Learn more about biopsies.

Certain symptoms may prompt tests for esophageal cancer. A person should consider contacting their doctor if they experience any symptoms of esophageal cancer. These may include:

However, if a person experiences one or more of these symptoms, it does not mean that they have esophageal cancer. These symptoms have a link with many other conditions. The doctor will discuss whether they recommend tests for esophageal cancer based on a person’s symptoms.

Doctors may also recommend screenings for esophageal cancer for people who are at high risk. Conditions that may increase the risk of esophageal cancer include:

A person with any of these conditions may consider discussing with their doctor whether it may be beneficial for them to have regular screenings for esophageal cancer.

When a person receives an esophageal cancer diagnosis, their doctor can explain the severity of their condition and the stage and extent of the cancer. A doctor will also review the treatment options available to them.

The individual will then be able to make an informed decision about whether they want to receive treatment and which type of treatment they would like to receive.

The treatment options available for esophageal cancer may include:

A doctor will be able to explain what treatments they recommend and what they involve, as well as answer any questions the person may have.

Here are some more frequently asked questions about esophageal cancer:

What is a typical early symptom of esophageal cancer?

Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, is the most common symptom of esophageal cancer. In the early stage of the condition, this may occur when swallowing solid foods. Liquids may become difficult to swallow as the cancer progresses.

What are the warning signs of esophageal cancer?

Some warning signs of esophageal cancer include:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • chest pain
  • vomiting
  • hoarseness

Will a chest X-ray show esophageal cancer?

A chest X-ray may show signs of esophageal cancer, such as when used for a barium swallow test. However, this test cannot provide information on whether cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Endoscopy is one of the most common types of imaging tests that doctors use to diagnose esophageal cancer. This is because an endoscopy can provide an image that can help determine the size and the extent of an esophageal tumor.

Other tests a doctor may order to reach an accurate diagnosis include X-ray, MRI, CT scan, and PET scan. They may also order laboratory tests such as a biopsy.

These tests can help confirm the diagnosis and identify whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. This can help doctors create the most appropriate personalized treatment plan for the individual.