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Doctors warn don't “stuff yourself this Christmas”, as charity launches Heartburn Cancer Awareness Day

Embargoed 14 December 2015

Doctors are warning that symptoms of over indulgence this festive season might be more than a sign that you’ve had too much food and fun.

Oesophageal cancer is often signalled by heartburn, a common occurrence for many during the festive period. Long-term changes to lifestyle that lead to regular Incidence of indigestion are a major contributor to people ‎developing Britain's 5th most common cancer.

The warning comes as latest evidence from a study of over 8500 people presented in the International Journal of Cancer show that far from being a disease of the elderly, cases of oesophageal cancer are rising in younger people. The cancer is strongly linked to persistent heartburn and obesity.

Tim Underwood, an Honorary Consultant Oesophagogastric Surgeon at University Hospital Southampton, said, “The latest studies show us that a much younger generation needs to be aware of oesophageal cancer. We are warning people who suffer from heartburn not to ignore the symptoms that might be a signal of cancer, symptoms which are commonly experienced over the festive period. If they persist for more than three weeks, make it your New Years resolution to see your GP. Early diagnosis is key.”

The most recent statistics demonstrate that more than 1 in 10 people with oesophageal cancer are now under the age of 50, with 30% of cases occurring in those under the age of 60. In these younger age groups those with persistent heartburn are eight times more likely to contract the life threatening illness. Obesity is a major factor too - people with a BMI of more than 30 are four times more likely to suffer from it.

HCUK, the charity set up to raise awareness of this type of cancer, wants to make sure people don't ignore persistent heartburn this festive season. It is staging a Heartburn Cancer Awareness Day on the 14th December, with plans to inform commuters and travellers at railway stations in the capital about the worrying illness.

Mimi McCord, Chairman and founder of the charity now known as HCUK, has witnessed the horrors of oesophageal cancer. Her husband Michael, tragically died of it aged just 47. Since then she has successfully campaigned for the testing of people of any age presenting with persistent symptoms, not just those over the age of 55.

Explaining why HCUK believes in making more people aware, Mimi said, “We want people to know that popping pills for long term heartburn and indigestion this Christmas isn’t the answer. It’s better to go to your GP, even if you are under the age of 60. Doctors are now much more aware of the signs of Oesophageal cancer, and an early diagnosis could save your life. “

The UK has the highest incidence of oesophageal cancer in the world, with figures from Public Health England showing 10,200 people dying from it each year. In the last 40 years there has been a 50% increase in deaths from the disease. Only 15% of people with oesophageal cancer survive more than five years after diagnosis. Despite this it accounts for just 2% of the Cancer Research budget.

However, despite the historic under-investment, there is some good news on the horizon. Doctors at the MRC Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge have just been given funding for a new trial of 4,000 patients in GP practices to see if a new test can pick up the earliest stages of cancer.

The new test is called the cytosponge, a small sponge on a string linked to a simple laboratory test, is inexpensive technology that helps to detect abnormal cells in the oesophagus that have the potential to become cancerous.

Rebecca Fitzgerald MD FMedSci, Professor of Cancer Prevention, University of Cambridge, who is leading the team developing the test, said “We’re delighted to now have the funding that will help us test our new diagnostic tool in a large number of individuals with heartburn to identify those patients who are at an increased risk of developing cancer. Patients with oesophageal cancer have a remarkably improved survival when diagnosed at an early stage. We are very hopeful that our simple test will help save lives in the very near future.”

For more details contact:
Emma Gaisford or Rhianna MacGregor on 01256 631694, email: or

Editors notes:

The International Journal of Cancer published its most recent report into oesophageal cancer in July of 2015. The full report is available on request.

Details of the Public Health England Survey from January 2015 can be found here

Interviews can be arranged with Tim Underwood, Associate Professor in Surgery at the University of Southampton and Honorary Consultant Oesophagogastric Surgeon at University Hospital Southampton; Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, MRC Programme Leader at the MRC Cancer Unit, Univeristy of Cambridge, and an Honorary Consultant in Gastroenterology at Addenbrooke's Hospital; and Mimi McCord, Chairman of HCUK.

Images of those quoted in this press release are available, along with pictures and details of the ‘cytosponge’.

Case studies:

In addition we have some very strong case studies who are available for interview, to explain the personal impact of oesophageal cancer – please contact us for more details.

For more details contact:
Emma Gaisford or Rhianna MacGregor on 01256 631694, email: or