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Maggie - research nurse and oesophageal cancer survivor

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

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

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Comments

Nick Peel March 10, 2014

Hi Melvina, there is no evidence yet showing that cannabis, or any chemical purified from the cannabis plant, is a safe and effective treatment for cancer. You can read about the research and evidence so far about cannabis, cannabinoids and cancer in this blog post.
Nick, Cancer Research UK

Melvina Arnott March 9, 2014

I keep reading that hemp could be used to cure cancer. Are there any studies on this ?

Elaine March 6, 2014

So pleased to have read Maggie’s story, as I have recently been diagnosed with this. I started my chemo today, they have told me operation is a big one, and I wouldn’t survive it,as I have COPD. Like Maggie I ignored mine until at Christmas I was in so much pain trying to eat my Christmas dinner, and it was my daughter also that nagged me to go to Drs I was in shock when she said hospital for you.thank you for telling this story, has given me a bit of a lift.

roger stiles March 6, 2014

Yes it is important to know the signs & get diagnosed. Treatment can start & cure can have a better chance. Yes we can beat cancer. I had my own bladder cancer diagnosed & treated within 3 weeks followed by chemo & a further major operation taking 7 months. I now live a normal life.

Diane, Derby March 6, 2014

When my Mum went to see her GP she thought it was IBS because she had a change in bowel habit. She never examined the Gp thought her weight loss was due to depression & sent her away with a prescription she actually had non Hodgkinsons Lymphoma with a tumour 14 x21 cms diagnoised Sept she died 10 months later. I am a nurse who has looked after at least 5 men who have gone to the GP with back pain which turned out to be a spinal tumour. The key is early diagnosis WHEN will these GPs start to listen.

Susan March 6, 2014

It’s always said that early diagnosis is key, but the trouble is GPs all too often send people away, assuming their symptoms aren’t serious, then by the time cancer is diagnosed it’s too late. Also when I had a lump, the waiting time to be seen was 2 months because I wasn’t considered ‘at risk’! I paid privately and was seen in 2 days (minus £800!), it’s frightening.

Fae Nelson March 6, 2014

Unfortunately for my husband, he had been suffering from thoracic back pain, and xrays showed that he had quite severe arthritic changes, so when the pain appeared retro-sternally as well, it was assumed that it was being referred from his back. He never had any dyspesia or reflux. It was only following a distressing episode of not being able to get a bite of bread bun and beef down or up,( coupled with a previous episode of feeling ‘peculiar’) that I got him to our GP, who got things moving very quickly, and tumours were found at, and near, the oesophago-gastric junction. It’s inoperable as lymph nodes attached to the aorta are affected. So, sometimes , if patients aren’t demonstrating the standard symptoms, or have symptoms appertaining to other conditions, diagnosis can easily be delayed with the best will in the world.
Ps We can’t fault the care and attention we have received by eveyone involved in his care up here in SE Northumberland.

KATHRYN ROSS March 6, 2014

WISHING YOU AND YOUR DAUGHTER ALL THE BEST MAGGIE. MY DAD HAD OESOPHAGEAL CANCER, CAUGHT FAIRLY EARLY BY A YOUNG AND DILIGENT DOCTOR. HE WAS CONCERNED HIS SYMPTOMS OF INDIGESTION AND DIFFICULTY SWALLOWING WERE WORSENING, BUT WOULD NOT HAVE HAD A CLUE THAT THIS MIGHT INDICATE CANCER – AS WAS THE CASE WITH THE REST OF US. SO MUCH MORE PUBLIC AWARENESS NEEDED.
CONTRARY TO CAROLS EXPERIENCE (HOPE EVERYTHING IS OKAY FOR YOUR CAROL) HE GOT WONDERFUL CARE IN ABERDEEN ROYAL INFIRMIRY, AND ALTHOUGH VERY SADLY THE CANCER RETURNED, WE KNOW THAT EVERYTHING POSSIBLE WAS DONE FOR HIM AND THE CARE HE GOT EVEN WHEN HIS CANCER RETURNED DID A LOT TO HELP HIM HAVE A GOOD QUALITY OF LIFE. WE ARE VERY THANKFUL FOR THAT. KATHRYN ROSS.

Oliver Childs February 27, 2014

Hello Carol. We’re sorry to hear about your husband and the concerns you have about your own health at the moment. Our nurses would be more than happy to talk with you sometime if that would help – they can be contacted on 0808 800 4040 (freephone, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday). We wish you the very best of luck.

Oliver, Cancer Research UK

Carol Cantellow February 22, 2014

My husband died of oesophageal cancer 8 .1/2 years ago.It wasn’t diagnosed until 3 weeks before his death although repeated visits to his GP..Just recently I have been getting the same sort of symptoms…a dry cough ,heartburn ,which I have never suffered with before and now my food is getting stuck. I am worried sick as I know what suffering my husband went through…I will make an appointment with my GP asap…but after the treatment my husband got I don’t have a lot of faith anymore..

louise February 13, 2014

Wishing you the very best Maggie and so pleased you are here helping spread the word about oesophageal cancer. I’ve lost two close relatives to this cancer and hope that public awareness of the symptoms improves. Research funding is so important, thanks to everyone who gives up their time to raise funds and save lives.