My dad was always a healthy man.
He seldom came down with a cold and even in his 70s he wasn’t on any regular medication, other than Omeprezole to quell his chronic acid reflux. Before that he managed it for years with Gaviscon and as a child I remember him swigging from huge bottles of it. He was a sailor but I always thought he looked like a pirate, knocking back his grog.
When he retired Mum and I worried he would be lost without the work he was so passionate about, but he threw himself into cycling, doing up his yacht, Phoenix and making friends in the boat yard. He had just over five years of his well-earned retirement before he was diagnosed with stage four oesophagus cancer. He’d had absolutely no symptoms. It was the secondary cancer they found – a tumour on his shoulder.
Dad had been complaining of pain there for weeks and had even been referred to a physiotherapist for a frozen shoulder. It wasn’t until he fell over in Waitrose that he went for an x-ray and they found it. What followed was a biopsy and three months of investigations with a doctor specialising in ‘cancers of an unknown primary’. At first they thought it might be prostate or blood cancer; then he had a colonoscopy and a gastroscopy. When he finally got his diagnosis the doctor said matter-of-factly: “It’s a shame it wasn’t bowel cancer, that has a much better survival rate than oesophagus.”
Bowel cancer was once considered a ‘bad’ cancer, but according to Cancer Research, UK survival rates have more than doubled in the last 40 years and all people over 55 are sent a screening test. But that doctor was right, oesophagus cancer – of the food pipe – has a much bleaker outlook.
It’s the seventh most common cause of cancer death in the UK – fourth for men – and we have the worst survival record in the world for it. Only 12% of people survive oesophagus cancer for 10 or more years, compared to 53% for bowel cancer, 75% for breast cancer and 78% for prostate cancer. That’s because it’s often not detected until it’s too late, although even those with stage one oesophagus cancer have a relatively low 55% chance of surviving five years or more.
Heartburn Cancer UK raises awareness of Barrett’s oesophagus, a condition that occurs when the cells lining the gullet are too exposed to acid and change shape. Ten per cent of people with chronic heartburn unknowingly have Barrett’s and one in 10 of those will go on to develop cancer.
Imagine if my dad had known all this – he might have started taking properly prescribed medication years earlier, instead of just knocking back the Gaviscon. And if he’d known that he had Barrett’s he would have had regular check-ups and his cancer could have been detected earlier. The burning question for me is: would he still be here? I think the answer is yes.
My dad loved life. He had so much more to give, so many adventures planned, and he’s terribly missed by everyone who knew him. I donate to Heartburn Cancer UK to make sure everyone knows that heartburn isn’t always harmless.
Education is key
Tell your friends and family about the dangers of persistant heartburn and find out how you can hugely reduce the risk of getting oesophagus cancer heartburncanceruk.org
- 59% of oesophagus cancer is preventable, compared to 38% of other cancers
- 8000 die of oesophageal cancer in the UK each year
- Oesophagus cancer rates in men have risen by 57% since the early 1970s – 9% for women
- Just 12% of people survive oesophagus cancer for 10 or more years