Oesophageal cancer awareness month When heartburn is a cause for concern and the innovative test that’s helping to prevent cancer

Date posted: 21st February 2024

February is oesophageal cancer awareness month, and while oesophageal might be a lesser-known cancer, the early symptoms - heartburn and acid reflux – are a familiar experience for many of us.

As many as one in four adults experience an occasional burning sensation in their chest, that goes away with some simple lifestyle changes.

However, if heartburn or acid reflux become a daily occurrence, it can lead to some changes in the cells that line the oesophagus (gullet), causing a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus.  Very occasionally, Barrett's oesophagus may develop pre-cancerous or cancerous changes which may lead to oesophageal cancer (cancer of the gullet).

The good news is that early detection of cell changes in Barrett's oesophagus can make treatment much easier and more effective, with better patient outcomes.

In Lancashire and South Cumbria, a pilot project is underway to offer an innovative capsule sponge test to patients with Barrett’s Oesophagus.  The test is a quicker and more comfortable alternative to an endoscopy for monitoring any changes in cells in the oesophagus.

The test involves the patient swallowing a capsule attached to a thin thread.  The capsule dissolves after a few minutes to release a sponge that gathers oesophageal cells for analysis once it is removed. 

Kathryn Taylor-Bates, is a practice nurse at Oswald Medical Centre, one of the GP surgeries piloting the technology which has been produced by health technology company, Cyted. She said: “We get the patient to swallow the device while it is connected to the string and then wait seven-and-a-half minutes. Once that time is up, we pull on the string to remove the device from the patient’s stomach because by then it should have turned into a sponge which collects the cells on the way up the oesophagus.

“This is a much quicker and easier procedure that can be done in the GP surgery, rather than an endoscopy in hospital. Also with an endoscopy they collect biopsies from four places, whereas with the capsule sponge device we collect cells from the whole of the oesophagus so we are potentially collecting more cells which can then be tested.”

Because of the speed and ease of the capsule sponge test, endoscopy waiting list backlogs for people with Barrett’s Oesophagus have been eliminated in the areas where it is being piloted.

The capsule sponge test is only available for patients of trusts that are participating in the pilot that meet the criteria for the test. 

Oesophageal cancer - symptoms to look out for:

The most common symptoms of cancer of the oesophagus include but are not limited to:

  • Worsening or persistent indigestion or heartburn.
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or food sticking.
  • Weight loss without trying.
  • Chest pain, pressure or burning.
  • Feeling or being sick.
  • Coughing or hoarse voice.

Other symptoms include:

  • Regurgitation (food coming back into your mouth)
  • Acid taste in mouth.
  • Hiccups

If you experience any of the above symptoms for three weeks or more, you should make an appointment to see your GP. 

Having these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have cancer of the oesophagus. There are many, much less serious, conditions that could be the cause but if you have persistent symptoms, it’s better to get checked.  If the GP feels further investigations are needed, you will be referred to a specialist.

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