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Esophageal Cancer: Surgery

Surgery can sometimes be used to treat esophageal cancer. Different kinds of surgery may be done. The type you have depends on where the cancer is, how much it’s spread, and other factors. 

When might surgery be used for esophageal cancer?

Surgery is often used to treat early stage esophageal cancer, especially cancer in the lower part of the esophagus. It’s often used along with other treatments. These can include radiation therapy and chemotherapy. 

Types of surgery for esophageal cancer


The main surgery used to treat this type of cancer is esophagectomy. In this procedure, the surgeon removes part or all of your esophagus. He or she also takes out nearby lymph nodes to check them for cancer. For cancers in the lower part of the esophagus, some of the stomach might be removed as well. This is called an esophagogastrectomy. The pieces of the esophagus or stomach that are left are then reconnected. If there isn’t enough esophagus left to reconnect the ends, the surgeon might use a section of intestine to bridge the gap.

This type of surgery can be done in two ways:

  • In one approach, the surgeon makes cuts in your neck, chest, and/or abdomen to remove the esophagus. Where the cuts are made depends on where the cancer is.

  • In a newer approach, the surgeon operates through smaller incisions. He or she uses long, thin surgical tools. This approach is used only for smaller tumors. But because the cuts are smaller, people may recover from it more quickly. 

Both approaches are complex. It’s important that the surgeon has a lot of experience.

Palliative surgery

For more advanced cancers, sometimes other, less complex surgery is done. This can help with problems, such as trouble eating. For instance, you may have a minor procedure. In it, your surgeon will put a feeding tube through your skin and into the stomach or small intestine.

Possible risks, complications, and side effects of surgery

All surgery has risks. Some of these risks include:

  • Reactions to anesthesia

  • Heavy bleeding

  • Blood clots in your legs or lungs

  • Damage to nearby organs

Risks from esophageal surgery

Along with the risks above, esophageal surgery can sometimes cause problems. These can include:

  • Pneumonia. Some people have lung problems after surgery. This can lead to pneumonia.

  • Anastomotic leak. After the surgeon removes a part of the esophagus (or the esophagus and stomach), he or she attaches the two ends together. A leak can occur at this connection. You might need surgery to fix this.

  • Esophageal stricture. Part of the esophagus might become narrower. This can cause problems swallowing.

  • Problems eating. After surgery, contents from your stomach might enter the esophagus more easily. This could lead to problems such as heartburn, nausea, and vomiting.

Getting ready for your surgery

Before you go for surgery, you’ll meet with your surgeon to talk about it. At this time, ask any questions and share concerns you may have. This is also a good time to review the side effects of the surgery and to talk about its risks. You might ask if the surgery will leave scars and what those scars will look like. You might also want to ask when you can expect to return to your normal activities. After you have discussed all the details with the surgeon, you’ll sign a consent form that says that he or she can do the surgery.

A few days before your surgery, your healthcare provider might give you laxatives and enemas to help clean out your colon. He or she will tell you when and how to use these. You may also be told to follow a special diet.

On the day of your surgery, you should arrive at the hospital admission area a couple of hours before the time your surgery is set to start. There, you'll complete the needed paperwork and go to a preoperative area. In this area, you’ll undress and put on a hospital gown. During this time, your healthcare team will ask you about your health history. They’ll also ask about medicine allergies and talk about the procedure. Try not to get frustrated by the repetition. These questions are repeated to help prevent mistakes.

While you’re in the preoperative area, an anesthesiologist or a nurse anesthetist will do an evaluation. He or she will also explain the anesthesia you’ll have during your surgery. The purpose of the anesthesia is to put you to sleep so that you won't feel any pain. Be sure to answer all the questions thoroughly and honestly. This will help prevent complications. Also, ask any questions you have about your anesthesia. You will sign a form that states that you understand the risks involved.

Your surgeon will also see you in the preoperative area. You can ask any last-minute questions you have. This will help put your mind at ease.

What to expect during surgery

When it’s time for your surgery, you’ll be taken into the operating room. There will be many people there. These include the anesthesiologist, surgeon, and nurses. Everyone will be wearing a surgical gown and a face mask. Once in the room, someone will move you onto the operating table. There your anesthesiologist or nurse will place an intravenous line (IV) into your arm. This requires just a small skin prick. Someone will place special stockings on your legs to help prevent blood clots. EKG wires with small, sticky pads on the end will be attached to your chest. This is done to monitor your heart. You’ll also have a blood pressure cuff wrapped around your arm. When all the preparation is complete, you’ll receive the anesthetic through the IV and will fall asleep.

During surgery, a Foley catheter may be placed through your urethra and into your bladder. This is a hollow tube used to drain urine. You’ll also have a breathing tube placed in your windpipe. A breathing machine (ventilator) will control your breathing. Also, a nasogastric tube may be placed in your nose. This is a suction tube that extends into the esophagus and stomach to drain stomach contents. 

What is removed during surgery and where your incisions are depend on the type of surgery you have. This is based on where the tumor is.

After your surgery is done, medical staff will move you to the recovery room. There, they will watch you for another hour or two. When you wake up, don't be alarmed by the number of tubes and wires attached to you. These are normal monitors for after surgery. When you’re fully awake in the recovery room, your family will be able to see you for a short time. Once you’re awake and stabilized, the staff will transfer you to the regular hospital floor.

What to expect after surgery

When you first wake up, you might have some pain. Your doctor or nurse will give you pain relievers as needed. These can help you feel more comfortable. The pain medicines will also help you get up and walk the day after your surgery. This is important for your recovery.

It will take time to get back to eating normally and having regular bowel movements. You will still have the Foley catheter in your bladder to drain urine. It allows your healthcare providers to measure your urine output and keep track of your fluid status. It’s normally removed before you go home.

How long you stay in the hospital will depend on the type of surgery you have. People who have a minimally invasive (laparoscopic) esophagectomy can often go home sooner. This is because they have smaller incisions that can normally heal faster.

You can slowly return to most normal activities once you leave the hospital. But you should avoid lifting heavy things for several weeks. Always follow the instructions you get from your healthcare team.

After surgery, you may feel weak or tired for a while. The amount of time it takes to heal from an operation is different for each person. You may not feel like yourself for several months. Your healthcare providers will give you instructions about whether and when you can get your incisions wet. You likely won't be able to drive for a while, as directed by your healthcare providers.

Talk to your healthcare team

If you have any questions about your surgery, talk to your healthcare team. They can help you know what to expect before, during, and after your surgery.

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Rick, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Gersten, Todd, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2016
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.