SOARING obesity levels have seen the North East record the highest rate of oesophageal cancer in the world.
Professor Mike Griffin and his specialist team at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary are currently dealing with around 630 new cases a year – the highest per capita rate anywhere.
Just 13% of people with the illness survive for more than five years after their diagnosis.
Cancer of the oesophagus – or gullet – is most commonly caused by high levels of acid reflux backing up from the stomach into the food pipe. Typical symptoms of acid reflux are heartburn, sickness and difficulty swallowing.
Fatty diets in the North East are believed to have triggered the dramatic rise in cases.
Prof Griffin, who leads the Northern Oesophago-Gastric Unit at the RVI, said: “The North East has the highest incidences in the world.
“We have more cases per head of population than anywhere else.
“You can imagine your Geordie boy down the Bigg Market drinking several pints, eating a fish supper – this can lead to reflux.
“If you have this for 20 years or more you may develop changes in the lining of the oesophagus which are pre-malignant.
“This can develop into cancer, which is why it is important for us to get to patients early.”
Abnormal cells in the food pipe – a condition known as Barrett’s oesophagus – is also on the rise in the North East and, if left untreated, can develop into oesophageal cancer.
Prof Griffin added: “In the very early stages a lot can be done through an endoscopy, which is so much better than having your oesophagus removed.
“The oesophageal surgery is a huge operation and the riskiest elective operation that people go through.”
For the past 20 years, Professor Griffin and his team have been working to raise awareness of the disease through their “Oesophagoose” campaign.
Their campaigning has led to a 10% increase in the number of referrals seen at the hospital, but Prof Griffin believes a lot of work still needs to be done.
Oesophageal cancer is responsible for almost 3% of all cancers in the UK and around 14,000 people across the UK die from it every year.
Men are twice as likely to develop the disease as women and, while risk increases with age, the youngest patient seen at the RVI was just 23 years old.
Page 2 - For some, even a ‘charmed life’ isn’t enough >>
For some, even a ‘charmed life’ isn’t enough
ROY Twelves, 79, of Ponteland, was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in 2008 after he started to have difficulty swallowing during his meals.
As the president of Sunderland Yacht Club and a former competitive cyclist, Roy had led an active life with no obvious signs of ill heath so his shock diagnosis of oesophageal cancer was hugely unexpected.
He said: "I’d led a charmed life. I didn’t smoke, I drank in moderation and was as active as I could be. I told my son, who is a doctor, about having difficulty getting food down and having to drink a lot of water with meals and he sent me to see one of his colleagues. After an endoscopy I was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer."
The cancerous growth was in the very bottom of Roy’s food pipe in a difficult position to access and doctors immediately started an intensive three-month course of chemotherapy to kill off the damaging cells.
But they were later forced to operate to remove the tumour and a series of medical complications meant Roy had to go under the knife a further three times.
"I was an unusual case because they had to operate on me so much because I got an infection further down the line. I was told the actual surgery was far more serious than heart surgery – some of the worse surgery there is – because they have to go in from the front and the back underneath your arm. Yet I’ve also met some people who were in and out of surgery within 10 days," said Roy, a grandfather of four.
He described his six-month stay in hospital after his final operation as one of the most difficult times of his life.
He said: "In the beginning it was a little on the horrendous side and then it turned into a sort of very long convalescence. I even had to have my golden wedding party with my wife in the ward."
When he finally left hospital in June 2009, almost a year after his diagnosis, Roy was determined to set about raising money for the Northern Oesophago Gastric Cancer Fund for their life-changing support and on Sunday morning he abseiled from Newcastle’s Malmaison Hotel to help raise £6,000.
"No-one knows why I got it. I was healthy and it was just one of those luck of the draw things but what I did have in my favour was that I was fit enough to withstand the operations. Not everyone would be.
"I’m also extremely lucky to live in the North East where Professor Griffin works. He oversaw all my operations and we’re so lucky to have the unit and the experts in this area so close. I can’t speak highly enough of him and his team."