Heartburn - it goes hand-in-hand with the festive season, a sign that we’ve had too much rich food and a glass or three too many.
But doctors are warning that the dreaded heartburn could be also be a sign of much more than seasonal overindulgence.
Oesophageal cancer is often signalled by heartburn and long-term lifestyle changes that lead to regular incidence of indigestion are a major contributor to people developing Britain’s fifth most common cancer.
The latest evidence from a study of more than 8500 people presented in the International Journal of Cancer show that far from being a disease of the elderly, cases of oesophageal cancer are rising in younger people and the cancer is strongly linked to persistent heartburn and obesity.
Tim Underwood, an honorary consultant oesophagogastric surgeon at University Hospital Southampton, said: “We are warning people who suffer from heartburn not to ignore the symptoms that might be a signal of cancer. If they persist for more than three weeks, make it your New Year’s resolution to see your GP. Early diagnosis is key.”
More than one in 10 people with oesophageal cancer are now under the age of 50, with 30% of cases occurring in those under the age of 60. In these younger age groups those with persistent heartburn are eight times more likely to contract the life-threatening illness. Obesity is a major factor too - people with a BMI of more than 30 are four times more likely to suffer from it.
HCUK, the charity set up to raise awareness of this type of cancer, wants to make sure people don’t ignore persistent heartburn this festive season.
Mimi McCord, chairman and founder of the charity, has witnessed the horrors of oesophageal cancer. Her husband Michael, died of it aged just 47. Since then she has successfully campaigned for the testing of people of any age presenting with persistent symptoms, not just those over the age of 55.
Mimi said: “We want people to know that popping pills for long-term heartburn and indigestion this Christmas isn’t the answer. It’s better to go to your GP, even if you are under the age of 60. Doctors are now much more aware - an early diagnosis could save your life. “
The UK has the highest rate of oesophageal cancer in the world and in the last 40 years there has been a 50% increase.
Only 15% of people with oesophageal cancer survive more than five years after diagnosis. Despite this it accounts for just 2% of the Cancer Research budget.
However, there is some good news on the horizon. Doctors at the MRC Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge have just been given funding for a new trial of 4,000 patients in GP practices to see if a new test can pick up the earliest stages of cancer.
The new test is called the cytosponge, a small sponge on a string linked to a simple laboratory test, and is an inexpensive technology that helps to detect abnormal cells in the oesophagus that have the potential to become cancerous.
Rebecca Fitzgerald MD FMedSci, professor of cancer prevention, University of Cambridge, who is leading the team developing the test, said: “We’re delighted to now have the funding that will help us test our new diagnostic tool in a large number of individuals with heartburn to identify those patients who are at an increased risk of developing cancer. Patients with oesophageal cancer have a remarkably improved survival when diagnosed at an early stage. We are very hopeful that our simple test will help save lives in the very near future.”