If you had the odd bout of indigestion or heartburn during last month's Christmas festivities, you were by no means alone. But did you know that getting heartburn every day over several weeks can be a sign of something more sinister? In a survey commissioned by Public Health England to coincide with today's launch of a 'Be Clear on Cancer' awareness campaign for the warning signs of cancer of the oesophagus (gullet) and stomach, half of people wouldn't see their doctor if they suffered heartburn almost every day for at least three weeks.
Most people who suffer heartburn, bloating, feeling sick and/or an acid taste in the back of the throat have simple inflammation of the oesophagus - oesophagitis to blame for their discomfort. Likewise, burning pain in the top of your stomach in the middle, sometimes associated with bloating, nausea and wind, is most commonly down to inflammation of the stomach lining, or gastritis. But if these symptoms are associated with vomiting after eating, food sticking as you try to swallow it, weight loss, pain in the front or back of the chest as you swallow, or loss of appetite, it's essential to rule out a more sinister cause. And in the same survey, 70% of people were unaware that food sticking in the throat could be a sign of oesophageal cancer.
Cancer of the oesophagus affects just over 8,000 people a year in the UK and most of them are over 50. Stomach cancer is less common in the UK than in some other countries. But the number of people affected is rising, and the UK (along with the Netherlands) has the highest rates of oesophageal cancer in the EU. Getting a diagnosis and treatment early can make all the difference to your chances of long-term survival. Public Health England estimates that just under 13,000 people a year are diagnosed with one of these two cancers in England, and about 10,200 people a year - 28 a day - die from them. That makes them, together, the fourth and fifth most common cause of death from cancer in men and women respectively in England.
Picked up and treated at an early stage, over two thirds of people diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus or stomach are still alive five years later. But if it's not diagnosed until a late stage, that figure drops to just 3%. Prevention, it goes without saying, is better than cure - smokers have higher rates of both forms of cancer than non-smokers, while keeping your weight and alcohol consumption down and eating lots of fruit and vegetables may all lower your risk.
But even if you lead the most blameless of lives - and these lifestyle choices will bring benefits far beyond your digestive tract - bad luck happens. I've diagnosed patients in their thirties and forties, who have never smoked, drunk or eaten to excess, with cancer. That means nobody is immune from cancer - and that means the best way to be certain is to rock up to your doctor if you have 'red flag' symptoms. There's a good chance they'll be able to reassure you and offer effective treatment. But even if you do turn out to have that scariest of diagnoses, cancer, early treatment vastly improves the odds.
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