London – For 20 years, Mike McCord suffered from heartburn almost every day. To him it became normal and making sure he had a packet of Rennies with him before he left home was as routine as checking he had his keys and wallet.
From time to time his wife Mimi asked him to go to the doctor about it, but he’d say: “Don’t worry, you can’t die of heartburn.”
In fact, he was wrong. By the time he did seek medical advice, Mike had advanced oesophageal cancer brought on by the heartburn he’d dismissed so breezily.
He died aged 47, leaving behind Mimi, widowed at just 44, and their two children, both at university.
Persistent heartburn can trigger oesophageal cancer and, unfortunately, thanks to our modern lifestyles, it has become an increasingly common cause.
Yet while many suffer from heartburn, they often know nothing about the heightened long-term risks, instead blithely crunching away on antacids for months or even years.
“Many people, and I’m afraid that includes some GPs, are unaware of the link between heartburn and cancer,” says Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald, a consultant gastroenterologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, in the UK.
Heartburn, often described as a burning sensation in the chest or acid taste in the mouth, occurs when acid leaks out from the stomach up the oesophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth).
This can be caused by a weakened valve in the oesophagus; some people are born this way, but it can develop with age, too.
Other triggers include obesity, pregnancy or over-indulgence, where pressure on the stomach pushes some of its contents out.
Caffeine and rich, spicy or citrus foods can also be a problem, as these relax the valve in the oesophagus. A hiatus hernia – when part of the stomach is trapped behind the oesophagus – is another common cause.
“If heartburn happens once or twice it will heal as normal,” says Fitzgerald. “But if the problem persists, and acid repeatedly leaks up from the stomach, the body tries to protect the oesophagus and creates a new lining.
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