People who suffer from heartburn should go and see a doctor if it persists for three weeks because they may be at risk of cancer, experts have warned.
Oesophageal cancer is on the rise in the UK, according to figures from Cancer Research UK, and the disease is bucking the trend of ever-improving cancer survival rates, with two thirds of patients dying within three to nine months.
In the past 30 years the number of people diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in the UK has doubled to around 8,400 annually.
Experts are still investigating the causes of the increase, but have linked the disease to obesity and to persistent acid reflux, or heartburn – a common condition caused when stomach acid leaks into the oesophagus.
Tim Underwood, an oesophageal surgeon and researcher at the University of Southampton, said: “From a surgical point of view, we're seeing a link between obesity and reflux and there is definitely a link between obesity and oesophageal adenocarcinoma [the most common form of oesophageal cancer]. So you could join the three dots together.”
He added that rates of acid reflux appeared to be on the increase. Many patients treat it with over-the-counter medicines like Gaviscon and Zantac, but Mr Underwood said it was important to see a doctor if symptoms persisted for more than three weeks.
“Diagnosing the disease earlier is key to improving the chances of survival,” he said. “Food getting stuck when you swallow and persistent heart burn are not normal. The vast majority of people won’t have anything seriously wrong with them, but it’s important to get checked out.”
If left untreated, acid reflux can damage the cells of the oesophagus leading to a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus, which in turn can lead to oesophageal cancer.
Men are three time more likely to get oesophageal cancer than women – one of the biggest gender gaps of all cancers. Fifteen in every 100,000 men get the disease.
Survival rates are so low partly because the disease is little-known and often diagnosed too late. Treatment is gruelling, involving chemotherapy and major surgery.