Health

Heartburn 'possible cancer sign' warning

Heartburn Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Persistent heartburn can be a sign of stomach or oesophageal cancer

A health campaign is urging people not to ignore heartburn, because it could be a sign of stomach or oesophageal cancer.

According to Public Health England, people should go to their doctor if they have persistent heartburn or difficulty swallowing food for three weeks or more.

But it said most people were not aware of the symptoms.

Stomach and oesophageal cancers are the fifth most common cancers in England.

PHE figures show that around 12,900 people in England are diagnosed with these cancers each year and approximately 10,000 people die from the diseases annually.

Yet, around 950 lives could be saved each year if survival rates for oesophago-gastric cancers matched the best in Europe, it says.

Spotting the signs

At present, the UK has the highest rate of oesophageal cancer in men and women in the EU, which may be due to smoking, rising obesity levels, a lack of fruit and vegetables in our diet and regular alcohol consumption.

The earlier the cancers are diagnosed, the more likely the treatment is to be successful.

This is why Public Health England's "Be Clear on Cancer" campaign is focusing on how to spot the signs of oesophageal or stomach cancer.

These can include:

  • indigestion on and off for three weeks or more
  • feeling food sticking in your throat when you swallow
  • losing weight for no obvious reason
  • trapped wind and frequent burping
  • feeling full very quickly when eating
  • nausea or vomiting
  • pain or discomfort in top of stomach

Sean Duffy, national clinical director for cancer at NHS England, said early diagnosis of cancer was critical to improving survival.

Image copyright CNRI/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Image caption The numbers who die from stomach cancer each year could be reduced if people were diagnosed earlier

"Patients with possible early signs and symptoms should visit their GP so where necessary they can be referred for tests, and treatment can start quickly."

Prof Michael Griffin, professor of surgery at the Northern oesophago-gastric unit, said people should not feel they are bothering their GP unnecessarily.

"You won't be wasting your doctor's time - you will either get reassurance that it isn't cancer, or if it is, you will have a better chance of successful treatment."

Stiff upper lip

Research published in the British Journal of General Practice, and funded by Cancer Research UK, looked at why people dismiss obvious cancer warning symptoms.

Sometimes it was because they feared a cancer diagnosis or they adopted a stiff upper lip approach to their health problems.

Others lacked confidence in their GP or just assumed the problem was down to ageing.

The good news for Public Health England, however, is that health campaigns appeared to encourage people to seek help.

Dr Katriina Whitaker, study author and senior research fellow at University College London, said: "Some people made the decision to get symptoms checked out after seeing a cancer awareness campaign or being encouraged to do so by family or friends - this seemed to almost legitimise their symptoms as important."

Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said the findings were a useful insight into the British psyche.

"International comparisons have already shown us that the British public are far more worried about being a burden on the health system or wasting the doctor's time than in other developed countries."

She said the study could help find ways to encourage everyone with worrying symptoms to seek help as early as possible.

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