Esophageal Cancer: Tests


Tests to evaluate esophageal cancer can include:

Barium Swallow

Also called an esophagram, a barium swallow is a series of x-rays of the esophagus. The patient drinks a liquid containing barium, which coats the inside of the esophagus. The barium makes any changes in the shape of the esophagus show up on the x-rays. If there is an abnormality, doctors may order an upper endoscopy and biopsy to determine if cancer is present.


Also called an endoscopy, an esophagoscopy is an examination of the inside of the esophagus using a thin lighted tube called an endoscope. An anesthetic, or substance that causes loss of feeling or awareness, is usually used during this procedure. If an abnormal area is found, the doctor can collect cells and tissue through the endoscope for examination under a microscope. This is called a biopsy. A biopsy can show cancer, tissue changes that may lead to cancer, or other conditions.

Upper Endoscopy (Esophagus-Gastric-Duodenoscopy, or EGD)

A thin, flexible tube with a light and video camera on the end is passed down the throat and into the esophagus. This test allows the doctor to see the lining of the esophagus. If an abnormality is found, a biopsy will be performed to determine if it is benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). An endoscopy can also help expand the blocked area, so that food can temporarily pass through until treatment can begin.


Similar to an upper endoscopy, the doctor passes a thin, flexible tube with a light on the end into the mouth or nose, down through the windpipe, and into the breathing passages of the lungs. A bronchoscopy may be performed if a patient’s tumor is located in the upper two-thirds of the esophagus to determine if the tumor is invading the person’s airway, including the trachea and bronchial tree.

CT Scan (Computed Tomography)

A CT scan creates a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body with an x-ray machine. A computer then combines these images into a detailed, cross-sectional view that shows any abnormalities or tumors.

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)

An MRI uses magnetic fields, not x-rays, to produce detailed images of the body.

PET (Positron Emission Tomography)

In a PET scan, radioactive sugar molecules are injected into the body. Cancer cells absorb sugar more quickly than normal cells, so they light up on the PET scan. PET scans are often used to complement information gathered from CT scan, MRI and physical examination.

Bone Scan

This technique, which creates images of bones on a computer screen or on film, can show whether cancer has spread to the bones. A small amount of radioactive substance is injected into a vein; it travels through the bloodstream, and collects in the bones, especially in areas of abnormal bone growth. An instrument called a scanner measures the radioactivity levels in these areas