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Don Lavoie is alcohol programme manager at Public Health England and Gul Root is lead pharmacist, Health and Wellbeing Directorate, Public Health England
More inWhite Papers  

be-clear-on-cancerJanuary 28 2015

A ‘Be Clear on Cancer’ campaign is urging people who have had heartburn most days for three weeks or more to visit their GP.

The campaign aims to raise awareness of indigestion being a sign of oesophageal or stomach cancer. It follows a survey that found that many people would not visit their doctor with indigestion symptoms; just over half of people (55%) said they would visit their GP if they had persistent heartburn.

The survey also found that 59% of respondents were unaware that heartburn could be a sign of cancer, while only 15% said they were certain that it is a symptom.

Public Health England is targeting indigestion symptoms saying that early diagnosis of oesophageal or stomach cancer is crucial and improves the likelihood of successful treatment. “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,” it says.

The campaign also points out that another symptom is difficulty with swallowing or food sticking in the throat, something not known by 70% of survey respondents.

“Persistent heartburn can also be a symptom of Barrett’s Oesophagus, a condition where the cells of the oesophagus grow abnormally,” said Lord Darzi, Professor of Surgery at Imperial College London. “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.”

PHE points out that around 12,900 people in England are diagnosed with oesophago-gastric cancers each year, with around 10,200 people dying annually from the diseases. This makes oesophago-gastric cancers the fourth and fifth most common cause of cancer death in men and women in the UK respectively. The UK and the Netherlands share the highest incidence rate of oesophageal cancer in females in the EU.

It estimates that around 950 lives could be saved in England each year if survival rates for oesophago-gastric cancers matched the best in Europe. More than nine out of 10 people diagnosed with oesophago-gastric cancers are over the age of 50, making this the target age group for the campaign.

Professor Kevin Fenton, National Director of Health and Wellbeing at PHE, commented: “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, added: “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 five year strategy for cancer, currently being developed by an independent taskforce.”

The campaign will run for four weeks and include advertising on television, radio and in the press. There will also be events taking place on shopping centres. Leaflets and further information can be downloaded from the NHS Choices website.

Supporting the campaign, Ash Soni, President at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said: “Pharmacists can play a crucial role, as individuals with oesophageal or stomach cancer often self-medicate during the early stages of the disease, because they do not recognise their symptoms and have not yet sought advice from a health professional.

“We are in an ideal position to have open conversations with people who seek advice for common conditions like heartburn and encourage them to seek advice from their GP if symptoms persist.”

Links:

PHE announcement

RPS response

NHS Choices ‘Be Clear on Cancer’ oesophago-gastric cancers

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