Press release

'Be Clear on Cancer' campaign highlights links between heartburn and cancer

New research reveals only 1 in 2 people (55%) would visit their doctor if they had heartburn most days for 3 weeks or more.

A national ‘Be Clear on Cancer’ campaign is launched today (26 January 2015) urging people to visit their doctor if they have heartburn most days for 3 weeks or more, as this can be a sign of oesophageal or stomach cancer.

The campaign launch coincides with results of a new survey commissioned by Public Health England, which reveals only 1 in 2 people (55%) would visit their doctor if they had heartburn most days for 3 weeks or more.

Early diagnosis of oesophageal or stomach cancer (also known as oesophago-gastric cancers) is crucial and means treatment is more likely to be successful. Around 67% of people diagnosed with oesophago-gastric cancers at the earliest stage survive for at least 5 years. This figure drops to around 3% for those diagnosed at a late stage.

According to the survey findings, 59% of respondents did not know that heartburn could be a sign of cancer with just 15% saying they were certain that it is a symptom.

Another symptom highlighted by the campaign is that of difficulty swallowing food. Here the survey found that 70% did not know food sticking in the throat could be a sign of cancer, and just 13% of those surveyed said they were sure it is a symptom.

Latest figures released by Public Health England reveal that around 12,900 people in England are diagnosed with oesophago-gastric cancers each year, with approximately 10,200 people dying from these diseases annually. This equates to 28 people dying from either oesophageal or stomach cancer every day.

Oesophago-gastric cancers are the fourth and fifth most common cause of cancer death in men and women respectively.

It has been estimated that around 950 lives could be saved in England each year if our survival rates for oesophago-gastric cancers matched the best in Europe.

The UK, with the Netherlands, has the joint highest incidence rate of oesophageal cancer in males in the European Union and the highest incidence rate of oesophageal cancer in females in the European Union. This may be due to smoking, low consumption of fruit and vegetables over time, rising obesity levels and consuming alcohol on a regular basis.

Of those diagnosed with oesophago-gastric cancers, more than 9 out of 10 people are over the age of 50, making this the target age group for the campaign.

Baroness Gail Rebuck, Chair of Penguin Random House UK, lost her husband Philip Gould to oesophageal cancer 3 years ago:

I understand from personal experience the devastating impact that oesophageal cancer can have. I lost my husband Philip Gould to this cancer in 2011 when he was just 61. I personally want to raise awareness of the symptoms and how important it is to go to the doctor if you have them. What we see from the statistics is the earlier the cancer is caught, the better the chances of survival.

Professor Kevin Fenton, National Director of Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England, explains the importance of this awareness activity:

People may be reluctant to visit their doctor about persistent heartburn, thinking that it’s something they just have to live with. But heartburn most days for 3 weeks or more could be a sign of cancer. 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.

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. Early diagnosis is a key focus for us and will form part of the NHS’s new 5 year strategy for cancer, currently being developed by an independent taskforce.

Professor Michael Griffin, Professor of Surgery, Northern Oesophago-gastric Unit, said:

Around 10,200 people in England die from either oesophageal or stomach cancer each year. Earlier diagnosis makes curative treatment possible and could potentially save hundreds of lives. Cancer campaigns like this, which encourage people to speak to their doctor if they have heartburn most days for 3 weeks or more, are vital. You won’t be wasting your doctor’s time. You will either get reassurance that it isn’t cancer, or if it is, you will have a better chance of successful treatment.

The 4-week campaign will see adverts running nationally throughout England on TV, radio and in the press with events taking place at a number of shopping centres across the country. For further information about the signs and symptoms of oesophageal and stomach cancers, please visit nhs.uk/ogcancer.

Ends

Notes to editors

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing, and reduce health inequalities. It does this through world-class science, knowledge and intelligence, advocacy, partnerships and the delivery of specialist public health services. PHE is an operationally autonomous executive agency of the Department of Health. Website: www.gov.uk/phe. Twitter: @PHE_uk, Facebook: www.facebook.com/PublicHealthEngland

Be Clear on Cancer campaigns are run by Public Health England, in partnership with the Department of Health and NHS England.

The Be Clear on Cancer campaign is part of the National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative, run in partnership with Cancer Research UK, to improve England’s cancer survival rates.

The Government’s priorities for cancer as set out in ‘Improving outcomes: a strategy for cancer (January 2011)’ includes the ambition to save an additional 5,000 lives per year by 2014 to 2015. One of the actions is to raise public awareness of the symptoms of cancer and encourage earlier presentation to primary care.

The campaign ran as a regional pilot in the North East and North Cumbria from February to March 2014. Results revealed:

  • There was a significant uplift post-campaign in spontaneous awareness of oesophageal cancer symptoms (ie heartburn and food sticking), and 63% agreed the advertising had told them something new
  • a 52% increase in the number of urgent referrals made by GPs to specialists for suspected upper gastrointestinal cancers compared with the same period in the previous year

Oesophageal and stomach cancer symptoms

Heartburn most days for 3 weeks or more could be a sign of oesophageal or stomach cancer. Other symptoms of oesophageal or stomach cancer may include:

  • food feels like it’s sticking in your throat when you swallow
  • indigestion on and off for 3 weeks or more
  • losing weight for no obvious reason
  • trapped wind and frequent burping
  • feeling full very quickly when eating
  • feeling bloated after eating
  • nausea or vomiting
  • pain or discomfort in your upper tummy area

Quotes

Lord Darzi, Professor of Surgery at Imperial College London and former Labour Minister said:

It is important that patients go to their doctor if they have long-standing heartburn. Persistent heartburn is a symptom of oesophageal and stomach cancers so it should not be ignored.

Persistent heartburn can also be a symptom of Barrett’s Oesophagus, a condition where the cells of the oesophagus grow abnormally. Barrett’s Oesophagus can be a pre-cursor to oesophageal cancer, so if we can diagnose this condition earlier, we can also potentially prevent some oesophageal cancers too.

People may be reluctant to visit their doctor about persistent heartburn, thinking that it isn’t anything serious. However earlier diagnosis means treatment is more likely to be successful and could potentially save hundreds of lives: that’s why I welcome this national Be Clear on Cancer campaign.

Mike Pringle, President of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said:

If we are to counter the depressing 5-year survival rates for oesophago-gastric cancer patients, we need more people with these cancers to be diagnosed earlier. We therefore urge people who have symptoms, particularly heartburn most days for 3 weeks or more, or the feeling of food sticking, to visit their GP. Be Clear on Cancer campaigns give the potential for more diagnoses and better outcomes for cancer. And even if the heartburn or symptom isn’t cancer, if it is persistent, it needs to be addressed.

Richard Hardwick, Consultant Surgeon and President-Elect of the Association of Upper Gastrointestinal Surgeons (AUGIS), said:

Combined, oesophago-gastric cancers are the fifth most common cancers diagnosed in England, yet many patients are still waiting too long before they report any symptoms.

It is important that people are able to recognise the signs of oesophageal and gastric cancers early. We want the best outcome for patients and if we catch the cancer early patients are more likely to be suitable for treatments that have the potential to cure them from the disease.

The Be Clear on Cancer campaign is a good public health initiative. It is imperative that anyone who has long-standing untreated heartburn symptoms, develop problems swallowing, experience unexplained weight loss, or persistent pains in their upper abdomen goes to see their doctor.

Dr Anjan Dhar, Upper GI Cancer Lead Clinician, Co Durham & Darlington Foundation Trust said:

In order to improve the early diagnosis of oesophageal and stomach cancers, it is important that patients go to their doctor if they have long-standing untreated heartburn symptoms or if they develop problems swallowing food. We welcome this national Be Clear on Cancer campaign because it is only by raising awareness of the symptoms of these cancers, that we will improve outcomes for patients and their families.

Alan Moss, Chairman from Action against Heartburn said:

Every year in England around 12,900 people in England are diagnosed with oesophago-gastric cancers. Despite this, there sadly continues to be lack of public awareness of the symptoms. This lack of understanding can lead to people being diagnosed at a later stage and therefore dying unnecessarily as treatment options become more limited. The significance of long-term persistent heartburn and its relationship to Barrett’s Oesophagus, which can be a precursor to cancer, is very important for early diagnosis. We very much welcome this national Be Clear on Cancer campaign as it will help raise awareness of the key signs: this is critical if we’re to improve early diagnosis of the disease.

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