If your heart burns with more than passion this Valentine’s Day, don’t ignore it – that’s the warning from cancer experts in the east of England.
As part of Oesophageal Cancer Awareness month, they want people to know that persistent indigestion, heartburn or acid reflux are among a number of symptoms that may be linked to the disease.
In the east of England, around 800 people die from oesophageal cancer every year – that’s about 15 people each week.
Dr Gareth Corbett, consultant gastroenterologist and Clinical Director for Digestive Diseases, based at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, is the East of England Cancer Alliances’ clinical lead for upper gastrointestinal cancers.
He said: “Oesophageal cancer continues to be a disease with late presentation in many patients, and prognosis remains poor for those who are diagnosed too late.
“Symptoms of difficulty swallowing, regurgitation or vomiting of food during or after a meal, reduced appetite and unexplained weight loss should not be ignored.
“In addition, new onset of acid reflux or indigestion, particularly in those over 55, should be highlighted to your doctor. The chances are it won’t be cancer, but it is important to rule out anything serious.
“A GP will review this and if necessary, refer for tests such as endoscopy.
“In the east of England we are also an early adopter of the Cytosponge, which allows diagnosis of pre-cancerous oesophageal conditions and much earlier intervention for patients. The device is a revolutionary pill on a string that the patient swallows and it expands into a small sponge that picks up vital cells as it is gently pulled out.
“This amazing innovation, invented in Cambridge, is transforming early testing and diagnosis. It is less invasive than an endoscopy and can be done in community settings as it is quick and easy.
“My advice is always consult your GP to arrange any simple tests that may be necessary. Do not ignore swallowing problems ever; if your food feels like it is getting stuck, seek medical advice.”
One of the reasons oesophageal cancer is so important to be aware of is that it does not usually cause any symptoms in the early stages, so it is often picked up late, when the cancer has grown bigger or already spread.
Daksha Trivedi, from Meppershall, Bedfordshire, owes her life to a GP check-up five years ago.
Tests revealed that Daksha had an aggressive form of oesophageal cancer – the same disease that had caused the death of her twin brother in Canada seven months earlier.
“Unlike my brother, I didn’t have any major symptoms, like heartburn or acid reflux,” she said.
“I had some bloating so my doctor was investigating for irritable bowel. If she hadn’t referred me, I wouldn’t be alive to tell the tale.”
The cancer was detected following an endoscopy, where a camera is passed down the throat into the stomach.
“Because of what happened to my brother, I was terrified the cancer had spread and I might not have long to live.”
But five years on, following radical surgery and a long slow road to recovery, the Professor and lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire has a clean bill of health and devotes most of her spare time to raising awareness of oesophageal cancer and supporting others affected by the disease. She runs the Mid Bedfordshire Cancer Support Group as well as volunteering as a Macmillan Buddy.
Daksha also campaigns for more cultural awareness around the taboos of discussing cancer and seeking help for early symptoms.
She wrote a landmark article in the British Medical Journal about how a family history of cancer affected her during her diagnosis, and how health professionals can support patients from different cultural backgrounds.
“In the Asian community, there’s a fear of judgement,” she said.
“Doctors need to consider the wider family and their community to dispel misinformation, fear and stigma. We need to talk much more about cancer to ensure that people attend cancer screening and get the best advice.
“This is especially true with oesophageal cancers, when the symptoms can be vague and easy to ignore.”
Thousands of patients across the east of England have already benefited from the ground breaking test, Cytosponge, which is being piloted in six hospital trusts across the region as part of a national NHS trial.
Janet Leebetter had the test at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. She said:
“It was slightly uncomfortable but that would not put me off taking it again if necessary, and I felt confident that had there been any issues the test would have found them promptly.”
In partnership with the charity Heartburn Cancer UK, a mobile unit offering the test was also established in Cambridgeshire for people with a history of heartburn who either self-referred or were selected by their GP according to their medical history.
February is Oesophageal Cancer Awareness Month. Charity Guts UK says the risk of developing oesophageal cancer increases with age, with drinking, smoking and being overweight.
Early diagnosis is key to better outcomes for all cancers. The East of England Cancer Strategy sets out a five-year plan, including diagnosing 75 per cent of people with cancer at either stage one or two by 2028. This equates to an additional 5,570 people a year across the region.