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Heartburn a sign of cancer

Cancer facts can be hard to swallow

Indigestion? Slight stomach discomfort? These are really common problems in our age group and many of us assume that our digestive system weakens a little as we age. Simply pop to the chemist and choose from a huge range of medications and all will be well.

But beware! Public Health England (and their information also applies of course to all areas) has started a major health campaign Be Clear on Cancer, warning that heartburn can be a sign of stomach or oesophageal cancer.

The campaign is running until February 22nd and is aimed at men and women aged 50 and over.

Frighteningly, these two cancers, although little talked about, are the fifth most common cancers in the UK – in England alone nearly 13,000 people are diagnosed with one of these every year and around 10,000 people die from stomach or oesophageal cancer every year.

The problem is that these cancers can begin as “silent” cancers with little or even no pain.

Of the two, stomach cancer is more common and there are some factors that indicate an increased risk of developing this, including being over 55, being male, smoking, eating a high salted or pickled diet and having a Helicobacter pylori stomach infection. But that said, the exact causes are still unclear and it can affect any of us.

By far the majority of stomach cancers develop in the cells in the stomach lining; but there are other types such as cancers that develop in the lymphatic tissue of the stomach and gastrointestinal stromal tumours which develop in the muscle in the stomach wall.

Stomach cancer is very difficult to treat. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy can both be used, and sometimes surgery is undertaken to remove the affected parts of the stomach.

Oesophageal cancer is less common but is still the ninth most common type of cancer in the UK, with over 8,500 new cases each year. The oesophagus really means the gullet, the long tube that carried our food down from our throat to our stomach. The top part runs down behind the windpipe while the lower end of this tube runs down through the chest between our spine and our heart.

Symptoms here can include difficulties swallowing and throat pain and even a persistant cough.

Oesophageal cancer in the upper part of the tube is generally known as squamous cell carcinoma, when the cells on the inside lining multiply abnormally. Lower down, when abnormal cell growth affects the lining, these cancers are known as adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus.

Treatment for these cancers can include removing the affected section of the oesdophagus, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Latest figures indicate that the UK has the highest rate of oesophageal cancer in Europe.

The Be Clear on Cancer campaign is urging anyone who suffers heartburn most days for three weeks or more, or for people who suffer any problems in swallowing, to visit their doctors for a check.


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