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Symptoms of advanced cancer

Find out about the symptoms of advanced oesophageal cancer.

Advanced oesophageal cancer means that a cancer that began in the food pipe (gullet) has spread to another part of the body.

The most common symptom is feeling tired and unwell. Other symptoms depend on where the cancer is in the body.  

You might have problems swallowing and some weight loss if the cancer is in the food pipe.  

Some people have pain in the area of the cancer but painkillers can usually control this well.

Where cancer can spread

The most common place for oesophageal cancer to spread is to the liver. It can also spread to the lungs, to lymph nodes or to the stomach.

Symptoms if cancer has spread to the liver

You might have any of the following symptoms if your cancer has spread to the liver:

  • discomfort or pain on the right side of your tummy (abdomen)
  • feeling sick
  • poor appetite and weight loss
  • a swollen tummy (called ascites)
  • yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • itchy skin

Symptoms if cancer has spread to the lung

You may have any of these symptoms if your cancer has spread into the lung

  • a cough that doesn’t go away
  • breathlessness
  • ongoing chest infections
  • coughing up blood
  • a build up of fluid between the chest wall and the lung (a pleural effusion)

Symptoms if cancer has spread to the lymph nodes

Lymph nodes are part of a system of tubes and glands in the body that filters body fluid and fights infection.

The most common symptom if cancer has spread to the lymph nodes is that they feel hard or swollen. Swollen lymph nodes in the neck area can make it hard to swallow.


Cancer cells can also stop lymph fluid from draining away. This might lead to swelling in the neck or face due to fluid buildup in that area. The swelling is called lymphoedema.

Symptoms if cancer has spread to the stomach

You may have any of these symptoms if your cancer has spread to the stomach

  • heartburn or indigestion that doesn’t go away
  • burping a lot
  • feeling full after eating a small amount
  • pain in the upper tummy area
  • feeling or being sick
  • poor appetite
  • losing weight
  • darker poo due to blood

Controlling symptoms

Symptoms can usually be well controlled. Your doctor or nurse can tell you about medicines that will help you. They can also tell you about things that you or your friends and family can do.

Swallowing problems

You might have problems swallowing if the cancer is in the food pipe. This can make you lose weight.

Swallowing can be difficult and painful if the food pipe is fully or partly blocked.  This might make it hard to get enough nutrition.

Treatment such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy or laser therapy can sometimes shrink the cancer. Then you can swallow more easily.

Swollen tummy - ascites

You might have a swollen tummy (abdomen) if your cancer has spread to the liver. The swelling is due to a build up of fluid called ascites. It can make your clothes feel tighter. Your tummy might feel bloated. You might also find it difficult to sit comfortably or to move around.

Your doctor can drain off the fluid by putting a small, flexible tube into the abdomen. This helps you to feel more comfortable.

Help with controlling symptoms

Your doctor or specialist nurse can help you to control symptoms. They can:

  • give you medicines
  • get equipment that you need
  • suggest other ways of controlling your symptoms
  • refer you to a symptom control team (a palliative care team)

Symptom control team

There are symptom control teams in most cancer units. They can help you to stay as well as possible for as long as possible. They are also in hospices and many general hospitals.

Most symptom control teams have home care services so they can visit you at home.

Get help with

Last reviewed: 
05 May 2016
  • Guidelines for the management of oesophageal and gastric cancer. British Society of Gastroenterology (BSG), 2011.

    Management of oesophageal and gastric cancer. Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN), June 2006.

    Oesophageal cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up. M Stahl, C Mariette, K Haustermans and others. Annals of Oncology. 2013. 24 (supplement 6) vi51-vi56.

    The role of stents in the palliation of oesophageal cancer. P Glen. BMJ Supportive and Palliative Care, 2016. 6:1 135-139.

    PleurX peritoneal catheter drainage system for vacuum assisted drainage of treatment-resistant recurrent malignant ascites. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. . November 2012.

    The Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (9th Edition). L Dougherty, S Lister (Editors), 2011.

    Cancer and its management (7th edition). J Tobias and D Hochhauser.
    Blackwell, 2015.

    Principles and practice of oncology (10th edition). VT De Vita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015.

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