Choking on a piece of salmon saved Lancashire man’s life

David Critchley from Eccleston survived oesophageal cancer and is now chairman of support group GASSUP (Gullet and Stomach Support Group)
David Critchley from Eccleston survived oesophageal cancer and is now chairman of support group GASSUP (Gullet and Stomach Support Group)
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People suffering from heartburn for more than three weeks are urged to see their doctor as it could be a sign of oesophageal or stomach cancer.

Aasma Day talks to one Lancashire man who knows only too well the importance of early medical intervention.

Eating a piece of salmon at a family party, David Critchley had the frightening experience of getting the salmon stuck and struggling to breathe.

The terrifying incident was the trigger he needed to see his GP after suffering increasing symptoms of heartburn for a few years.

David, now 74, who lives in Eccleston, near Chorley, recalls: “I had been getting indigestion for years, but then I started getting it more often and began getting heartburn as well.

“I then realised I was eating more slowly and everything was taking me a lot longer to eat.

“Even a banana seemed to take an age to eat.

“I now realise it was the difficulty with swallowing I was experiencing which was causing my meals to take a lot longer to finish.

“Then I had the incident where the salmon got stuck in what I thought was my throat but was actually my oesophagus.

“It was very frightening as I was retching and struggling to breathe and I felt discomfort.

“I eventually managed to get the piece of salmon dislodged.

“It gave me the push I needed to visit my doctor as I was also losing weight.”

David, who was 65 at the time, was sent to hospital where he had an endoscopy.

Doctors found a large tumour. However, it was well contained and had not spread.

David then underwent three sessions of chemotherapy to shrink the tumour and make it operable.

He had the operation in April 2006. The major surgery took eight hours and involved removing the tumour, reshaping the stomach into a tube form and then connecting it to what was left of the oesophagus. It is now possible to perform part of the operation through a keyhole procedure for some patients.

David spent 11 days in hospital before returning home to recover and, nine years on, he is doing very well.

David says: “The outcome has been very good for me and that is why I am keen to publicise the importance of seeking medical help when you suffer persistent symptoms of heartburn.

“A lot of people keep taking antacids instead of going to their GP, but there could be an underlying cause as to why they are getting heartburn so much.”

To support others in similar situations, David helped found GASSUP – the Gullet and Stomach Support Group. The group, which has been running for around seven years, meets on the last Wednesday of each month at Vine House Cancer Help at Cromwell Road, Ribbleton, Preston.

David is helping Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, in partnership with Public Health England, to raise awareness of oesophageal and stomach cancers as part of the national Be Clear on Cancer campaign.

The campaign urges people to visit their doctor if they have heartburn most days for three weeks or more as this can be a sign of oesophageal or stomach cancer. Latest figures reveal around 630 people in Lancashire and Cumbria are diagnosed with oesophago-gastric cancers each year, resulting in 455 deaths annually.

Jeremy Ward, consultant surgeon at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals, says: “Early diagnosis and treatment of cancer can save lives. Heartburn most days for three weeks or more could be a sign of cancer, as could food feeling like it’s sticking in your throat when you swallow.

“I would urge anyone experiencing these symptoms to seek medical help.

“The chances are it is nothing serious, but finding it early makes it more treatable and early diagnosis and treatment of cancer can save lives.”

A new survey commissioned by Public Health England reveals that nationally, only one in two people (55 per cent) would visit their doctor if they experienced these symptoms.

The survey showed that 59 per cent of respondents did not know that heartburn could be a sign of cancer, with just 15 per cent saying they were certain it is a symptom.

Another symptom highlighted by the campaign is the difficulty of swallowing food. The survey found 70 per cent did not know food sticking in the throat could be a sign of cancer and just 13 per cent of those surveyed said they were sure it is a symptom.

Early diagnosis of oesophageal or stomach cancer – also known as oesophago-gastric cancers – is crucial and means treatment is more likely to be successful.

Nationally, around 67 per cent of people diagnosed with oesophago-gastric cancers at the earliest stage survive for at least five years.

This figure drops to around three per cent for those diagnosed at a late stage.

Professor Kevin Fenton, national director of health and wellbeing at public health England, explains the importance of this awareness activity: “People may be reluctant to visit their doctor about persistent heartburn, thinking that it’s something they just have to live with.

“But heartburn most days for three weeks or more could be a sign of cancer. The earlier cancer is diagnosed, the higher the chance of survival.

“If we are to improve early diagnosis rates, we need to encourage people with symptoms to go to their doctor, which is what this latest Be Clear on Cancer campaign aims to do.”

It has been estimated that around 950 lives could be saved in England each year if survival rates for oesophago-gastric cancers matched the best in Europe.

Of those diagnosed with oesophago-gastric cancers, more than nine out of 10 people are over the age of 50.