29 January 2015
People who often get heartburn have been urged not to ignore the problem if it occurs on most days for three weeks or more.
As part of the recently launched Be Clear on Cancer campaign, Public Health England has warned that persistent heartburn can be a sign of stomach or oesophageal cancer.
Just over half (55 per cent) of people would visit their doctor if they experienced the condition regularly for over three weeks, according to a survey by the public health body. Six out of ten respondents (59 per cent) were unaware heartburn could be a sign of cancer, with only 15 per cent feeling certain it is a symptom.
Another possible indicator of stomach or oesophageal cancer – also known as oesophago-gastric cancers – is difficulty swallowing food. Seven out of ten people were unaware of this fact and only 13 per cent were sure of it.
Professor Kevin Fenton, national director of health and wellbeing at Public Health England, said heartburn sufferers should not fall into the trap of thinking it is "something they just have to live with".
He continued: "The earlier cancer is diagnosed, the higher the chance of survival. If we're to improve early diagnosis rates, we need to encourage people with symptoms to go to their doctor, which is what this latest Be Clear on Cancer campaign aims to do."
Approximately 12,900 people across England are diagnosed with oesophago-gastric cancers every year and about 10,200 patients die from the diseases. They are the fourth and fifth most common cause of cancer death in men and women respectively.
The UK has the joint-highest incidence rate of oesophageal cancer among men in the EU, along with the Netherlands, and the highest incidence rate in women. More than nine out of ten people diagnosed with these particular diseases are over 50, making this the target age group for the new campaign.
Smoking and regular alcohol consumption are possible contributing factors to oesophago-gastric cancers, along with rising obesity levels and low consumption of fruit and vegetables over time.
One of the most powerful weapons healthcare providers have in the battle against these conditions is early diagnosis. Two-thirds of people who are diagnosed at the earliest stage survive for at least five years, compared to just three per cent of those who get a late-stage diagnosis.
Public Health England pointed out that nearly 1,000 lives could be saved in England every year if survival rates were improved to match the best in Europe.
Sean Duffy, national clinical director for cancer at NHS England, said: "Early diagnosis of cancer is absolutely critical to improving survival. Part of this is helping people understand what symptoms to look out for, which is why campaigns like this are so important.
"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."
NHS England and Public Health England have set targets to save an additional 5,000 lives from cancer every year by the end of 2015.
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