Cancer is not your portion. Yes. Indeed, Amen!! But then, it pays to know how your body functions and what to look out for when you start feeling funny.
Dave Dickinson looks back at his father’s death in September 2021 and wonders if things could have been different. His dad, John, had been suffering with uncharacteristic back pain for two weeks when he went to the GP, who had a hunch something wasn’t quite right.
“My dad rarely went to the doctor. The GP thought he looked unwell, so decided to run some bloods and send them off,” says Dave, 38, an electrical engineer from Devon.
It is deeply concerning that most people are unaware of common cancer symptoms
The results of the blood test were unexpected and catastrophic. Dave’s father had oesophageal cancer. A further scan revealed the tumour had spread down to the join with his stomach and was too advanced to be treatable.
Tragically, four weeks later, at just 58, John was dead.
“It was so quick,” recalls Dave. “At the time, everything was such a blur, but I remember my dad being very philosophical about it, saying he’d had a good life.”
Now, looking back, Dave wonders about the cancer that was growing insidiously inside his dad for years and has many unanswered questions.
“The cancer clearly didn’t happen overnight,” says Dickinson. “He’d been suffering with indigestion for years. Could that have been part of this? Was it a symptom he shouldn’t have ignored? Should he have gone to the doctor and even then, would it have been found?” And then comes the hardest question of all: “Could we have had more time with him?”
Oesophageal cancer is one of the six “less survivable cancers” that have a five-year survival rate of just 16 per cent – and persistent indigestion is one of the lesser-known symptoms.
According to new research by the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce, symptom-spotting is a huge problem for the six deadliest cancers – lung, liver, brain, oesophageal, pancreatic and stomach.
The research revealed only one per cent of the 2001 adults surveyed were correctly able to identify the symptoms of liver cancer, and just two and three per cent respectively able to spot symptoms of oesophageal and stomach cancer.
Anna Jewell, chair of the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce, said it was “deeply concerning” that most people are unaware of common cancer symptoms.
“Early diagnosis can make a huge and significant difference so it’s essential that people become familiar with the symptoms, and are aware of any changes in their body,” says Jewell. “Any unusual or new symptoms – even if the symptoms seem unrelated to each other – must be taken to their GP.”
Consultant oncologist Professor Karol Sikora agrees. “The earlier the cancer diagnosis the better the treatment options and the more chance of getting rid of it,” he says. “Stage 1 cancers are confined to the organ and are 90 per cent curable, Stage 2 cancers have travelled to the lymph nodes and have a cure rate of 70 per cent but with Stage 3 and 4 cancers, the cure rate drops down to 20 and 10 per cent as the cancer may be elsewhere in the body. If you have a symptom that persists and doesn’t go away after two weeks, you need to seek medical advice.”
Surgery is the first treatment for most cancers – if caught early enough – with chemotherapy and radiotherapy being the two other most effective treatments.
“It can be devastating to be diagnosed at a late stage when there are fewer treatment options,” adds Jewell. “Not only is it difficult for the person with the illness, but it has a huge impact on friends and family. It can be about fighting for more time with loved ones, which is very important.”
As well as the sudden loss of his father in 2021, Dave also lost his mother to pancreatic cancer in 2019. “She had a stomach ache for a month or so and at first, she ignored it,” says Dickinson.
Eventually, she went to her GP who sent her home thinking it was an infection, but when she turned yellow, tests discovered a tumour in her pancreas that was causing problems in her liver.
“She had a stent put in to open up the passageway between her pancreas and liver and that seemed to help and the prognosis was good,” says Dickinson. “We were optimistic she’d have treatment and live a cancer-free life.”
But the chemotherapy to shrink the tumour was problematic; Dickinson’s mum kept getting infection after infection and the chemotherapy had to be stopped. Eight months after diagnosis, she passed away, at 56.
“It was very tough because she didn’t want to talk about dying but at least we got a chance to tell her we loved her and to reassure her everything would be OK,” says Dickinson. “I do wish she’d been diagnosed earlier – you want as much time as possible – but it wasn’t meant to be.”