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Tests for oesophageal cancer

Men and women discussing non oesophageal cancer

This page has information about the tests you may have when you have symptoms that could be caused by an oesophageal cancer. You can find the following

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Tests for oesophageal cancer

You will usually see your family doctor (GP) first, who will ask you about your general health and your symptoms. Your doctor will perform a physical examination, which may involve feeling your abdomen and the lymph nodes in your neck and under your arms. Your doctor may refer you to hospital for tests and X-rays or send you directly to a specialist.

At the hospital

The specialist will ask you about your medical history and symptoms. They will examine you and may arrange for you to have some further tests. These may include blood tests and a chest X-ray to check your general health. Your specialist may also suggest an endoscopy (oesophagoscopy) or a barium swallow, if you haven't had one already.

Endoscopy is the main test for cancer of the oesophagus these days. An endoscope is a long thin tube with a light and camera inside. It allows the doctor to look at the inside of the oesophagus. They will take tissue samples (biopsies) of any abnormal looking areas.

A barium swallow is a type of X-ray investigation. It is also called a barium meal. Barium is a white, chalky liquid that you drink. A series of X-rays are taken as the barium passes down your throat and into your stomach. If there is a lump inside your oesophagus, this will show up on the X-ray. 
 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the diagnosing oesophageal cancer section.

 

 

Tests your GP will run

If you have symptoms or are worried about your health, you usually begin by seeing your family doctor (GP). The doctor will examine you and ask about your general health. Then your doctor will ask you about your symptoms. This will include what they are, when you get them and whether anything you do makes them better or worse. They may take some blood tests to check your general health.

Your doctor will perform a physical examination, which may involve feeling your abdomen and the lymph nodes (glands) in your neck and under your arms. After your examination, your doctor may refer you to hospital for tests and X-rays or send you directly to a specialist.

 

At the hospital

If you see a specialist, you will be asked about your medical history and symptoms. The specialist will then perform a physical examination. You may be asked to have blood tests and a chest X-ray to check your general health. Further tests will be arranged in the outpatient department. Your specialist may suggest an endoscopy or barium swallow, if you haven't had one already.

 

Endoscopy

This is the main test for cancer of the oesophagus. An endoscope is a long, thin, flexible tube with a light and camera inside. During the test you usually have a sedative to make you drowsy and less aware of what is going on. You may choose to have the test without the sedative. In this case, your doctor will spray your throat to make it numb. 

Your doctor or nurse endoscopist will put the tube into your mouth and ask you to swallow it. The endoscope allows them to look at the inside of the oesophagus. The images are usually seen on a video screen. They will take tissue samples (biopsies) of any abnormal looking areas. They can do this through the endoscope. There is detailed information about having an endoscopy in the cancer tests section.

If you have a sedative, you will be drowsy for some time after the test. You can usually go home a few hours afterwards. But you will need someone with you. Because of the sedative, you won't be able to drive for the rest of the day and shouldn't really be on your own if you are using public transport.

 

Barium swallow

A barium swallow is a type of X-ray investigation. It is sometimes called a barium meal. Barium shows up the outline of the inside of the digestive system very clearly on X-ray. This test is not often used now for diagnosing oesophageal cancer.

Barium is a white, chalky liquid. As you drink it, the radiographer takes a series of X-rays as the barium passes down your throat and into your stomach. If there is a lump inside your oesophagus, this will show up on the X-ray. There is more information about having a barium swallow in the about cancer tests section. There are few side effects to this test. Some people feel a little sick afterwards. And you may have constipation and white poo (faeces or stools) for a couple of days as the barium passes out of your system.

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Updated: 26 March 2014