Esophageal cancer

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Side effects of photodynamic therapy for esophageal cancer

Side effects can happen with any type of treatment for esophageal cancer, but everyone’s experience is different. Some people have many side effects. Other people have few or none at all.

Side effects can happen any time during, immediately after or a few days or weeks after photodynamic therapy (PDT). Sometimes late side effects develop months or years after PDT. Most side effects go away on their own or can be treated, but some side effects may last a long time or become permanent.

Side effects of PDT will depend mainly on the:

  • area of the body being treated
  • type of photosensitizer used
  • how sensitive your cells are to light after treatment

Tell your healthcare team if you have these side effects or others you think might be from PDT. The sooner you tell them of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.

Skin reactions

PDT can cause the skin to become red or discoloured. It can also make skin sensitive to the sun. These skin reactions can last up to 6 weeks after PDT treatment, so you should try to stay out of the sun for at least 6 weeks.

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Sensitive eyes

PDT can make the eyes sensitive to bright light, including sunlight. Yours eyes may be sensitive for up to 6 weeks, so you should try to avoid the sun and bright indoor lighting during this time.

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Difficulty swallowing

Difficult or painful swallowing can occur when the pharynx or esophagus is in the treatment area. PDT can cause inflammation, swelling, pain and scarring in the esophagus, which can make swallowing difficult. Difficulty swallowing usually goes away shortly after PDT is finished.

Find out more about difficulty swallowing.

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Narrowing of the esophagus

PDT for esophageal cancer can cause a narrowing, or stricture, of the esophagus. This is usually related to inflammation of the esophagus (called esophagitis), which is a common side effect of PDT.

Narrowing is usually treated with dilation to open up the esophagus. Your doctor may place a stent in the esophagus before PDT begins. This helps to keep the esophagus open and prevent narrowing of the esophagus.

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PDT for esophageal cancer can sometimes cause bleeding or a small hole in the esophagus. Small holes in the esophagus can sometimes heal on their own. Surgery may be needed to repair a larger hole.

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Lung problems

Lung problems can occur when the trachea and bronchi are irritated by PDT. These problems include:

  • difficult or painful breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing
  • mucus in the throat and chest

Lung problems usually go away shortly after PDT is finished.

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Stomach pain

Stomach pain may occur when the stomach is in the treatment area. PDT can cause inflammation, swelling and scarring of nearby healthy tissue, which can contribute to stomach pain.

Talk to your healthcare team about how they can help manage your pain.

Find out more about pain.

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People who receive PDT to the esophagus may have nausea. Nausea usually occurs the same day that PDT is given.

Find out more about nausea.

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Metallic taste in the mouth

PDT may cause a metallic taste in the mouth. This usually occurs on the same day that PDT is given.

Find out more about taste changes.

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The body’s protective response to injury or infection that includes redness, swelling, pain and warmth of the affected area.


The tube-shaped airway in the neck and chest that leads from the larynx (voice box) and branches to form the bronchi (the large tubes, or airways, that connect to each of the lungs).

Commonly called the windpipe.


The large tubes, or airways, that branch off from the windpipe (trachea) into the lungs, where they branch into smaller tubes (bronchioles) that end in the alveoli (air sacs). Bronchi carry air to and from the lungs.

Bronchialmeans referring to or having to do with the bronchi, as in bronchial adenoma.

Bronchi is the plural of bronchus.


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Some cancers, such as thyroid and testicular, have survival rates of over 90%. Other cancers, such as pancreatic, brain and esophageal, continue to have very low survival rates.

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