NHS doctor
Public Health England is urging people to visit the doctor if they are experiencing persistent heartburn Reuters

Suffering from persistent heartburn could be a sign of oesophageal or stomach cancer, Public Health England has warned.

The national health body is urging people to visit their doctor if they experience constant heartburn or have difficulty swallowing food, as part of its Be Clear on Cancer campaign, which launches today, (26 January).

It revealed only 55% of people would visit their doctor if they suffered heartburn for three weeks or more.

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

Some 70% of people also did not know food sticking in the throat could also be an indicator of having cancer.

Professor Kevin Fenton, National Director of Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England, said: "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 three 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.

Latest PHE figures reveal around 12,900 people in England are diagnosed with oesophago-gastric cancers each year, with around 10,200 people dying from these diseases annually. This equates to 28 people dying each day.

Early diagnosis of oesophageal or stomach cancer can extend a person's life by five years.

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."

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."

High rates of oesophageal cancer in UK

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, chairman of Penguin Random House UK, lost her husband Philip Gould to oesophageal cancer three 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."

For further information about the signs and symptoms of oesophageal and stomach cancers, please visit nhs.uk/ogcancer.