Being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer

How oesophageal cancer is diagnosed

You usually start by seeing your GP, who will examine you. You may have blood tests to check your general health.

If your GP is unsure what the problem is, or thinks you may have cancer, they will refer you to a hospital for an endoscopy, specialist advice and treatment. 

If a cancer is suspected, you should be seen at the hospital within two weeks.

At the hospital

Your first appointment at the hospital may be for an endoscopy. If the endoscopy suggests that you might have cancer, you will then see a specialist. They will ask you about your general health and any previous medical problems. They will also examine you. You may have blood tests and a chest x-ray to check your general health. In some hospitals, you will be seen by a specialist nurse before seeing a doctor.

Endoscopy

The doctor or a specialist nurse will put a thin, flexible tube (endoscope) into your oesophagus. There is a tiny light and camera on the end of the tube. This helps to see any abnormal areas. If necessary, they can take a small sample of cells (biopsy) to be examined under a microscope. This can usually confirm whether there is a cancer present. The biopsy is not painful.

You will usually have an endoscopy in the hospital outpatients department, but occasionally you’ll need to stay in hospital overnight. You’ll be asked not to eat or drink for at least four hours before the procedure. You’ll also be given instructions about any medicines you’re taking.

To have the endoscopy, you will be asked to lie on your side on a couch. A local anaesthetic may be sprayed on to the back of your throat. Or you may be given a sedative to make you feel sleepy and reduce any discomfort. The sedative is usually injected into a vein in your arm. Sometimes both an injection and the spray are used. The doctor or nurse then passes the endoscope down and examines the inside of the oesophagus.

An endoscopy can be uncomfortable but shouldn’t be painful. Let your doctor know if you have any chest pain during or after the procedure.

If you’ve had the local anaesthetic spray to the back of your throat, you may need to stay in hospital until it has worn off. This usually takes about an hour. You shouldn’t try to swallow anything during this time. After a few hours, the effect of the sedative will wear off and you’ll be able to go home. You shouldn’t drive for several hours after the test and should arrange for someone to travel home with you.

Some people have a sore throat afterwards. This is normal and should get better after a couple of days. If it doesn’t, let your doctor at the hospital know.

Back to Tests and scans

Further tests after diagnosis

You will have further tests to find out more about the cancer. This will help your doctors plan the best treatment.