Alert over signs of cancer linked to obesity in men
Heartburn that keeps coming back could be an early sign of a cancer which is set to double in Ireland in the next two decades.
Men are the main sufferers of cancer of the gullet or windpipe, known as oesophageal cancer. Growing levels of obesity have been linked to the rapid rise of this cancer in Ireland, said researcher Dr Margaret Dunne.
"With more sedentary lifestyles and more obesity, it particularly affects men. We think it's down to body shape, because men tend to carry 'the beer belly' on the front, whereas women carry it on the hips," she said.
"So it is going to shoot up," added Dr Dunne, assistant research professor working at the Trinity Translational Medicine Institute based at Saint James's Hospital in Dublin.
She is working with a team of researchers examining aspects of the cancer at the Department of Surgery in the hospital. The team is led by Professor John Reynolds, a consultant gastroenterologist who is an authority on the disease.
"Two-thirds of patients in Ireland with oesophageal cancer are men, mainly aged 60 or more, but in our research, a bigger proportion [than that] are men," said Dr Dunne.
There are two types of the cancer which affects the windpipe and foodpipe. One is linked to smoking, and this type is decreasing because fewer people now smoke.
The other type is adenocarcinoma, which is a particular focus of the research in Dublin.
"We think the cancer arises due to long-term damage to the oesophagus. If you carry a lot of weight on your front in the belly region, you could suffer from reflux. So heartburn can be a symptom. We are trying to raise awareness, but we don't want to scare people. It is a rare cancer, with around 350 cases a year in Ireland," Dr Dunne said. But too many people do not go to their doctor quickly enough, because there can be a lack of symptoms. As a result, the five-year survival rate can be as low as 15pc.
"There are very general symptoms like having problems swallowing, or bloating, or losing your voice or hoarseness for no obvious reason," she said.
Many patients come forward when they have difficulty eating. This usually leads to an endoscopy where a camera or scope is used, and a lump can be found to be causing an obstruction.
Dr Dunne said: "If people out there are ignoring persistent heartburn, then we are not going to see them soon enough… If you're popping Rennies every day, you shouldn't be. We try to make people aware of things like that, particularly if they are men over 50.
"People with constant or persistent heartburn should go to their GP. We want to spread awareness of oesophagus cancer among healthy people… So if a friend says they feel a bit hoarse for no reason, they can be encouraged to get it checked out instead of ignoring it," Dr Dunne added.
Dr Dunne will be one of many speakers at a free seminar on Wednesday at the Institute from 5pm to 8pm who will speak about clinical trials being conducted into different medical conditions.
The seminar is organised by the Centre for Information and Study on Clinical Research Participation.
People will get a chance to learn how clinical trials for new medicines are carried out and how to participate.
To register in advance, see awareforall.org.