Brenda (81) can pinpoint exactly the time she knew something was really wrong. “I was in a London theatre, relaxing with a vodka and tonic,” she says. “There were some cheese cubes on sticks at the bar and when I ate one, it just wouldn’t go down. I knew then, it was oesophageal cancer.”
This was back in 1996, when Brenda was in her early 60s, and had been suffering from heartburn and acid reflux for almost a fortnight. Thinking the cause might be a hernia, she’d made an appointment to see her GP the following week. But having already lost her mother to oesophageal cancer, Brenda knew that when she started to have difficulty swallowing food, she was at serious risk. She curtailed her holiday in the capital and asked her GP to bring her appointment forward, as there wasn’t a second to waste.
“I must admit I was frightened, because my mother only survived five days after her diagnosis,” says Brenda. “And I was scared of the surgery. The night before my operation I wrote a letter to each of my four daughters… I was so relieved when I came around from the op.”
Crucially, Brenda’s speedy reaction meant that although the cancer had spread to her stomach, it hadn’t yet reached her glands. Her surgeon, Professor Michael Griffin, told her that because her glands were clear, her prognosis of survival would now likely exceed the norm of five years. Eighteen years later, she's still going strong.
“So don’t put off a visit to the GP,” Brenda insists. “I wouldn’t wait three or four weeks, even. It was just days between the endoscopy – where the doctors found the cancer had spread to my stomach – to meeting my surgeon and taking tests to see whether I could cope with the necessary operation, which took place ten days later.
‘My glands were clear because of the speed at which everything happened, which was crucial.’
After surgery, Brenda made a full recovery. “I was desperately poorly when I came home,” she remembers, “but I set myself little goals. The first was to make a cup of tea, which I managed a few days later.
“I worked my way up, and suddenly the next goal was to see my single daughter married and settled, and to help nurse her first baby. Now I have a photograph of that baby on my knee,” she smiles.
Undoubtedly Brenda’s positive attitude aided her recovery. She was given the all clear eight years ago, after ten years of check-ups, and she’s learnt some important lessons along the way.
“I was always family-orientated but also liked fine dining, cruises and the good life,” says Brenda. “But looking back, none of these things were important. I’ve given most of my jewellery to my daughters.
'My grandchildren and great-grandchildren are my gems now'
"I volunteer at a local hospice once a week, I have my family around me, and I’m the luckiest person in the world.” She pauses. “The message here is: speed is of the essence.”
Oesophageal cancer symptoms
Heartburn or indigestion for three weeks or more could be a sign of cancer. Other symptoms of oesophageal or stomach cancer include:
- Food sticking in your throat when you swallow
- Losing weight for no obvious reason
- Trapped wind and frequent burping
- Feeling full or bloated very quickly after eating
- Nausea, vomiting, or pain and discomfort in your upper tummy area
Professor Michael Griffin, of the Northern Oesophago-gastric Unit says, “Around 10,200 people in England die from either oesophageal or stomach cancer each year. Earlier diagnosis could potentially save hundreds of lives.”
If you’re thinking of visiting your GP because you think you have symptoms, his advice is: “You won’t be wasting your doctor’s time… you will either get reassurance that it isn’t cancer, or if it is, you will have a better chance of successful treatment.”
Click here for further information and practical advice about oesophageal and stomach cancer, in association with the national Be Clear on Cancer campaign.
There’s more health advice and information in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday