Spotting symptoms – a personal story about oesophageal cancer

Cancer Research UK

You may have seen reports this week that people with mouth and oesophageal cancers are leaving it longer between first noticing a symptom and visiting their GP compared to people with other cancers.

The study highlights the need to do more to raise awareness of symptoms to help people spot these cancers earlier.

This is particularly true of oesophageal cancer - our latest statistics show that the number of people dying from this disease has risen by almost 50 per cent in the last 40 years.

The importance of spotting this cancer early is something that Maggie – one of our research nurses from Southampton – knows only too well. In 2008 Maggie was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. She acted on her symptoms, which can help speed up diagnosis – a vital step in catching these cancers at an early stage.

Nearly six years on, Maggie shares her story in this special guest post:

Maggie at the Royal Albert Hall

Life begins at 60.

I had lots to look forward to, celebrating my birthday in Australia with my daughter.

As a research nurse working with cancer patients I was always very busy and although my working day was extremely long, I loved it. The patients make the job so rewarding.

I’ve been working in cancer care for many years. And I’ve seen great changes in attitudes, treatment and expectations for cancer patients and their survival.

In early March 2008 I came home from work, made a cheese sandwich and was eating while on the phone. But then I had quite a severe pain in my chest.

It lasted just a short time and I thought to myself that it was probably just heartburn and that I must chew my food more thoroughly and not rush around while eating.

A week later I was in Australia and it happened again and my daughter noticed I was in pain.

She was concerned that I also appeared tired so I promised I would go to the GP when I was back in the UK. The pain struck a third time before I left so I phoned to make an appointment before I flew home to be sure I would see my GP as quickly as possible.

After listening to my symptoms, the GP immediately referred me for an endoscopy – a test that uses a camera to look inside your digestive system.

By then I was very concerned.

A quick referral

Things happened very quickly after the endoscopy, which revealed a tumour in my oesophagus.

In a matter of days I had a CT scan, blood tests and was seen by an oncologist, a surgeon and a specialist nurse with a plan of action which included further tests, chemotherapy, and surgery.

It was quite strange to attend the same chemotherapy unit that I worked in and be treated by the colleagues I knew so well. They were so kind, caring and professional, I felt totally safe in their hands.

The surgery was planned for August after three months of chemotherapy. Only after this would I be able to eat normally again.

My surgery took place and I had many ups and downs, which resulted in staying in hospital for almost three months rather than the normal seven to ten days.

These complications meant I came close to losing my life. But the staff were amazing. It’s thanks to their wonderful care and hard work that I’m here to tell the tale five and a half years later.

Part of my recovery was helped by going back to work and to feel I was leading a normal life.

The future

In 2012 my daughter was diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).

Following her treatment I became really aware of the new ways that some cancers were being targeted.

Instead of a one size fits all type of treatment we are moving towards a system where each patient will get treatment tailored to their type of cancer.

New trials and greater public awareness of signs and symptoms and the need to go to the GP as soon as possible will increase the number of cancers found at an earlier stage – especially oesophageal cancer

But more needs to be done, and that’s why I’m really proud to have supported my colleagues in Southampton who ran the New York Marathon to raise money for Cancer Research UK.

Research is vital in finding new ways to treat cancer and I hope that my story will also help highlight some of those symptoms that can often be brushed off as “everyday”.

Being aware of them is so important in beating this disease.

Maggie

Further information

Oesophageal cancer symptoms
Mouth cancer symptoms