Back in 2019, researchers at the John Hopkins University were looking at a new way to diagnose cancer of the oesophagus, using what are called “genetic bio-markers”.  This cancer is very common and is responsible for over 400,000 deaths worldwide every year.  Survival rates are not brilliant.

The great problem with it is that it tends to only really show itself and become symptomatic at a point where the cancer can be reliably diagnosed and the patient treated.  We see this as clinical negligence lawyers because people come to us as they feel there have been inexcusable delays in their diagnosis and treatment if they have oesophageal cancer and as a result, they have become untreatable.

Sadly, we have to tell many of them that by the time they felt concerned enough about symptoms, which can include a dry cough, excessive and/or persistent heartburn- like symptoms and difficulty or inability to swallow, it was already too late for effective treatment and there is unlikely to be a claim.  It comes as yet another blow at a time when they don’t need it, but we cannot avoid giving adverse advice where that is the case.

One of the diagnostic techniques for this cancer is something called an endoscopy, where a tube is threaded down the throat into and often beyond the oesophagus to record what is in there on a little camera.  It can be quite an unpleasant procedure and usually requires sedation.  This means time off work and someone going with you as you won’t be allowed to drive home.

It is however, essential.

John Hopkins were working on what they called a ”Sponge-On-A String”, which is a much less invasive, quicker and less expensive test.  Basically, what happens is that the patient swallows a small capsule attached to a string. The capsule makes its way into the stomach, where the capsule coating dissolves, releasing a tiny sponge, still held by the string.  The string is then pulled back up, bringing with it the sponge which now has cells and DNA material on it, which is then tested.   It was said at the time to be a way of trying to predict who had early stage cancer or even to predict who might get it, so they could be monitored earlier.

We move on and it was reported recently in newspapers such as The Guardian that this tool is now being trialled in mobile units.  The “cytosponge” has been developed at the University of Cambridge and is reported to be “really simple and straightforward” by Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald from the University.  There is apparently still some discomfort, but not as much as with an endoscopy.

It is also hoped that it will cut waiting times for endoscopies and it doesn’t usually require hospital  time and resources to carry out the test, which it is hoped will both prevent the cancer and lead to earlier diagnoses where it is already developing and thus better survival rates.  The prevention occurs by being able to detect something called “Barrett’s Oesophagus”, which can be an indication of, or a pre-cursor to, full blown oesophageal cancer.

The pandemic had made waiting lists for diagnostic endoscopies much longer and in many areas none were taking place at all.  Plus they were more risky, due to the possibility of catching Covid, as there was with many medical procedures during the pandemic.

Initial tests are being carried out at GP surgeries in Cambridge and then moving out to Essex and Suffolk. The test apparently takes about 10 minutes.

The unit has been funded and equipped jointly by Heartburn Cancer UK (HCUK), a charity founded by Mimi McCord after her husband died from oesophageal cancer. She is dedicated to promoting the unit and says:

“What I know now would have saved my husband’s life and I am grimly determined that a difference will be made to other people”

We really hope that it is and that people will take the opportunity to be tested for what can be a horrible disease if it is allowed to take hold.

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