Someone who fears esophageal cancer notices on some days there’s what feels like a pill or food stuck in their throat, a lump sensation independent of having just eaten.
They may even wake up with the feeling, so it’s definitely not related to recent eating or swallowing a pill.
However, on other days it’s gone, not there at all. Then it’s back, then gone; it’s transient or sporadic.
Could this possibly be caused by esophageal cancer?
“I do not remember a patient describing their dysphagia in this manner,” says Alex Little, MD, a thoracic surgeon with a special interest in esophageal and lung cancer, and 20+ years of experience.
Dysphagia means difficulty swallowing. However, a person can have a lump feeling in their throat without any mechanical trouble with swallowing, even bread or meat.
Dr. Little explains, “Perhaps some patients experiencing trouble swallowing might feel the food is sticking in their throat — but typically when asked where the food is sticking, patients [with esophageal cancer] will indicate it’s lower down.
“If a patient did complain of a transient lump in their throat, and it worried them enough to see a physician, an upper GI X-ray would be reasonable or a contrast study called a swallowing study.”
Don’t be alarmed if your doctor very easily agrees to order such a test.
This does not mean they suspect a serious problem.
When I was experiencing discomfort two seconds after swallowing food (no lump feeling or dysphagia, though), a gastroenterologist didn’t challenge me at all nor make the authorization process tricky. She hopped right on it and got it in the system.
This did not mean she suspected a serious problem with my esophagus.
In fact, when I asked her what she thought was causing the odd and brief ache two seconds after food went down, her exact response (over the phone) was “GERD, GERD and GERD.”
The problem indeed turned out to be acid reflux.
Do not be afraid to pursue diagnostics. You are far more likely to have some inflammation in your esophagus than a tumor.
But it’s also very likely that an on-and-off sensation of a lump in your throat is acid reflux or anxiety.
Your doctor may recommend taking a proton pump inhibitor drug such as Prilosec or Nexium to see if that relieves it.
The Transience of a Throat Lump
What’s really reassuring about a throat lump sensation that comes and goes is that it comes and goes.
This is not a likely feature of a tumor in or near your throat. The tumor is always there – and growing bigger.
It’s not going to one day cause a globus or lump feeling, then the sensation goes away for a week, then comes back for a few days, then disappears again, and so on.
Furthermore, cancer would not cause a lump feeling to be prevalent when waking up in the morning.
Overnight, while your body is more horizontal, acid has a chance to reflux into your esophagus and make its way up to throat level.
When you wake for the day, you then feel “something in the throat.”
Just because your throat is not burning doesn’t mean that the globus can’t be caused by acid reflux.
See if sleeping more reclined or on a wedge pillow won’t solve the problem. But if it doesn’t, this does NOT mean you have cancer!
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.