by Polsdorfer R

Radiation therapy uses high-energy waves to destroy cells. It stops cancer cells from growing and dividing. Two kinds of radiation therapy treat esophageal cancer. One is given inside the body. The other is given from outside the body.

For esophageal cancer, radiation therapy is most often used along with chemotherapy. The combination is often more effective than either treatment alone.

Radiation therapy may be used:

  • Before surgery—to shrink the tumor and decrease the amount of tissue that has to be removed
  • After surgery—to kill any remaining cancer
  • For tumors that have spread—to ease symptoms and extend survival time

The types of radiation therapy include:

External Beam Radiation

A machine directs high-energy rays through the body to the tumor. A specialist will set the dose and schedule. The therapy is often given in a number of doses over a few weeks.


This is also called internal radiation therapy. Radioactive material is placed in a special container. The container is then placed near the tumor. This allows a higher dose of radiation to be sent to the tumor. It is often used to treat tumors that are blocking the esophagus. The material is placed with an endoscopy. A scope is passed down the throat to the tumor. Brachytherapy may be:

  • Low-dose—Radiation is left in place for 1 to 2 days. A hospital stay will be needed. It can be one in 1 to 2 cycles.
  • High-dose—Radiation is left in for a few minutes at a time. Because of this, more cycles are needed.

Side Effects and Management

Side effects of radiation therapy to the chest and abdominal areas may include:

  • Problems or pain when swallowing
  • Narrowing of the esophagus—esophageal stricture
  • An abnormal opening between 2 structures—fistula
  • Lung damage
  • Problems breathing

Other side effects can happen. They may include dry, irritated skin, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and tiredness due to anemia. Treatments can help to manage side effects. Adjustments may be made to treatment. The earlier side effects are addressed, the better.


Esophageal and esophagogastric junction cancer. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Accessed April 22, 2022.

Esophageal cancer. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: Accessed April 22, 2022.

Esophagus cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at Accessed April 22, 2022.

General information about esophageal cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Accessed April 22, 2022.

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