Can someone one day be swallowing normally and then next day be unable to because of esophageal cancer?

How sudden can esophageal cancer symptoms come on?

After reading about a man who was quoted as stating that one day suddenly he couldn’t swallow food – and was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a month later – I decided to see what Alex Little, MD, had to say.

Dr. Little is a thoracic surgeon with a special interest in esophageal and lung cancer, and 20+ years of experience.

Difficulty — or the perceived difficulty — with swallowing food seems to be a fairly common problem among the masses of people.

Needless to say, high levels of anxiety can cause this issue. But … so can esophageal cancer.

One day you suddenly seem to have trouble getting food down your throat. In all the previous days, there were no problems, and in fact, you may have even overindulged or ate rapidly due to being in a hurry – without any struggles.

But now, here you are, finding it not very easy to get your typical food fare down. Nevertheless, it goes down.

In the ensuing days, you no longer have this problem. And that is the smoking gun here: The problem was transient; it’s now gone.

That’s not how esophageal cancer works.

“The obstructive symptoms of esophageal cancer typically come on slowly, not suddenly, and then increase gradually as the tumor enlarges,” says Dr. Little.

It’ll just get worse and worse. The premier symptom of esophageal cancer – food “getting stuck” in one’s throat or chest, or food coming back up from the throat after it’s swallowed — does NOT come and go, like for instance, the pain of sciatic nerve irritation or a muscle spasm coming and going.

But there’s a very interesting phenomenon that you must consider, which can mimic the disappearance of the dysphagia (difficulty with swallowing).

When Swallowing Food Seems to Improve Despite Esophageal Cancer

Dr. Little explains, “However, a frequent pattern I saw in many of my patients was for them to modify their diet as time progressed, shifting from solid to soft foods and even liquids, either without being aware or sometimes consciously, to cope with increasing difficulty swallowing.”

If you believe that the trouble swallowing has gone away – ask yourself if you’ve taken to modifying your food intake.

  • Have mashed potatoes replaced boiled potatoes?
  • Love apples? Has applesauce replaced whole apples?
  • Have you stopped eating anything that’s hard and compact such as bagels, meat and fudge squares?
  • Have you been eating soup more often?
  • Have you lost weight due to eating less even though you’re still hungry?

“If they delayed seeking medical attention long enough, an episode with food sticking or lodging in their esophagus drove them to medical attention,” says Dr. Little.

In other words, dysphagia will eventually evolve into food impaction at some point in the throat or esophagus.

Any attempts to continue eating to push down what feels like a clump of food stuck somewhere, will result in the additional food being regurgitated – if not just added onto the impaction.    

“Although pain is unusual with esophageal cancer, this can be a sudden and first symptom as famously happened with Christopher Hitchens (a British-American author and journalist who, since teen-hood, was a heavy smoker and drinker – two major risk factors).”

Alex Little, MD, trained in general and thoracic surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; has been active in national thoracic surgical societies as a speaker and participant, and served as president of the American College of Chest Physicians. He’s the author of “Cracking Chests: How Thoracic Surgery Got from Rocks to Sticks,” available on Amazon.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.


Top image: Zigic

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