Symptoms of oesophageal cancer

The most common symptoms of oesophageal cancer include:

  • difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • indigestion or heartburn that don't go away
  • unexplained weight loss
  • pain in your throat or behind your breastbone

There are many other conditions that cause these symptoms. Most of them are much more common than oesophageal cancer.

You should see your doctor if you have difficulty swallowing, or you have symptoms that are unusual for you or that won't go away. Your symptoms are unlikely to be cancer but it is important to get them checked by a doctor.

Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)

You may feel pain or a burning sensation when you swallow, or your food may stick in your throat or chest.

This is the most common symptom of oesophageal cancer.

A harmless narrowing of the oesophagus called a stricture can also make it difficult for you to swallow. It is important to get this symptom checked by your doctor.

Indigestion or heartburn that don't go away

You can get indigestion when acid from your stomach goes back up (refluxes) into the oesophagus. Or when the stomach is inflamed or irritated.

The valve between the stomach and oesophagus normally stops this from happening. The valve is called the cardiac sphincter. A tumour that develops here can stop the valve working, causing indigestion.

Remember that indigestion is common and it's not usually caused by cancer. It can be very painful, even when there's nothing seriously wrong.

See your doctor if you’ve had heartburn most days for 3 weeks or more, even if you’re taking medicine and it seems to help. Heartburn is burning chest pain or discomfort that happens after eating.

Weight loss

You may be put off eating if you find it hard to swallow or have pain when you swallow your food. This can make you lose weight.

Rarely, extreme weight loss can be a sign of an advanced cancer.

Pain in your throat or behind your breastbone

You may feel pain in the centre of your chest, or more rarely in your back or between your shoulder blades. This can get worse when you swallow or have indigestion.

Other symptoms

Other symptoms can include:

Food coming back up

You may regurgitate food – this is when food comes back up soon after you swallow it. It usually starts with food like meat and bread. You may start to bring up soft foods such as mashed potato, drinks and saliva if you don't have treatment.

A cough that won't go away

A cough that won't go away or that happens when you try to eat can be caused by oesophageal cancer. 


Your voice can become raspy or croaky. It's not a common symptom and can be caused by other harmless conditions.

Coughing up blood

You may cough up blood or have blood in your vomit (or food that you bring back up) if your oesophagus is bleeding. This isn't common. 

Dark poo

Your poo may be darker – almost black – if cancer is making your oesophagus bleed. This is uncommon. You can get darker poo if you're taking iron tablets.

  • Suspected cancer recognition and referral
    The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), June 2015

  • Scottish referral guidelines for suspected cancer: Quick reference guide 
    The Scottish Government, March 2009

  • ECCO essential requirements for quality cancer care: Oesophageal and gastric cancer
    W. Allum and others
    Critical Reviews in Oncology/Haematology Volume 122 (2018) Pages 179-193

  • Current management of oesophageal cancer
    N Rashid and others
    British Journal of Medical Practitioners, 2015, Volume 8, Issue 1, pages 804 - 813

  • Cancer: Principles and practice of oncology (11th edition)
    VT DeVita, SA Rosenberg and TS Lawrence
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2018

Last reviewed: 
02 Aug 2019

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