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Find out what screening is and the tests people at high risk of oesophageal cancer can have.

There is no national screening programme for oesophageal cancer in the UK. This is because

  • there isn’t a sensitive enough test available
  • those tests that are available find low numbers of cancers
  • they have risks
  • they can be expensive

People who are at higher risk of developing oesophageal cancer have regular checks. This includes people with Barrett’s oesophagus.

The only way doctors can screen for food pipe (oesophageal) cancer is with an endoscopy, at the moment. This test means they can look at the lining of the food pipe and take tissue samples (biopsies). There are risks with this procedure, such as bleeding or a small tear in the lining of the food pipe but they are rare.

Barrett’s oesophagus

Barrett’s oesophagus means that there are abnormal cells in the lining of the food pipe. These cell changes can change into cancer over time. Only a small number of people with Barrett’s go on to develop oesophageal cancer.

The British Society of Gastroenterology (BSG) generally recommend that people with Barrett’s oesophagus have regular endoscopies to look for cell changes. They call this surveillance.

When deciding about whether to do regular endoscopy doctors assess the general health of the patient and ensure that the benefits of screening outweigh the possible risks.

How often you have an endoscopy if you have Barrett’s oesophagus depends on a number of factors. This includes

  • how abnormal the cells are
  • how much of the oesophagus the Barrett’s is affecting

Doctors are waiting for the results of trials to find out the best way of monitoring people with Barrett’s oesophagus.

People who have very abnormal changes in the cells will have treatment.

People who have some low grade changes you will either have a repeat endoscopy 6 months later or your doctor might treat the abnormal cells.   You will continue to have 6 monthly endoscopy if you don't have treatment.

What to do if you think you’re at risk

Talk to your GP if you think you are at higher than average risk of oesophageal cancer.

What is screening?

Screening means testing people for early stages of a disease before they have any symptoms.
For screening to be useful the tests

  • need to be reliable at picking up cancers
  • need to be simple and quick
  • shouldn’t show that someone has cancer when they don’t (false positive results)
  • need to not cause any harm

Not all screening tests are helpful and they can have risks.

Last reviewed: 
05 May 2016
  • Guidelines on the diagnosis and management of Barrett’s oesophagus
    British Society of Gastroenterology, 2013.

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