When grandfather Gary Martin began having trouble swallowing he was not too concerned at first.
But as it continued his family persuaded him to see his GP – for the first time in more than a decade.
And his GP’s swift action in referring him to hospital for tests actually saved his life.
The fit and healthy 56-year-old had oesophageal cancer which, if it had not been caught early enough, could have killed him.
But fortunately for Gary, who runs a scaffolding business, the cancer was caught in time to have a major operation – taking away two thirds of his stomach – to remove it.
And, almost two years on, he is fit and well enough to enter a weight lifting competition in the spring.
‘The trouble with oesophagus cancer is doctors often send you away with Gaviscon and tell you to come back in a month – by which time the damage could be done’Gary Martin
With his wife Marion at his side and surrounded by his five children and 10 grandchildren, Gary. of Fairmead Walk, Cowplain, can hardly believe how close he came to not being here and is desperate to raise awareness of the disease.
He says: ‘So often ingestion and trouble swallowing is covered up with Gaviscon when in fact that’s the worst thing you can do.
‘It could be something much worse. During Christmas 2013 I noticed when I was swallowing meat it wouldn’t go down properly.
‘It wasn’t painful but it felt like there was a blockage, the food wasn’t going down freely.
‘By the February it was happening about twice a week but not enough to really concern me.
‘But my daughters were really worried after I was sick and said “Dad, this isn’t normal. You must do something about it”.’
His GP, Dr Shahnaz Schaeper at Bosmere Medical Centre, sent Gary for an endoscopy which at first showed what looked like a typical ulcer.
But a biopsy revealed it was a tumour, half a centimetre long, that had very recently turned cancerous.
Gary says: ‘My doctor saved my life. The trouble with oesophagus cancer is doctors often send you away with Gaviscon and tell you to come back in a month – by which time the damage could be done.’
The tumour was at the J junction – the join of the oesophagus and stomach.
A few weeks after diagnosis it had grown to 3cm.
Gary was told he must undergo an operation called Ivor-Lewis oesophagectomy. It is so complex it can only be performed on people who are fit enough to withstand being under anaesthetic for six hours.
Gary says: ‘I knew it was big but I only had two options – have the operation or die.’
The Martins are an extremely close family and their home is always full of children and grandchildren.
On the night before the operation they all slept at the family home to wave Gary off in the morning.
Daughter Serena, 36, says: ‘It was so, so hard to see dad. We went to every appointment with him.
‘He gave us a cuddle and we could see he was holding it in. We just broke down in tears.’
Surgeons took away six inches of oesophagus and 66 per cent of his stomach.
Gary spent five weeks in hospital – the majority on the high dependency unit. And every single day his devoted wife Marion was by his side.
The 56-year-old says: ‘I was exhausted and even the doctors told me to go home.
‘When Gary did eventually come home I had to learn how to feed him though a tube when went through his bowel.
‘It was a difficult time but the way I looked at it was, he was very unlucky to get it. But very lucky that they caught it.’
Around seven weeks after the operation Gary was able to start eating properly again.
But he had to undergo gruelling chemotherapy after a cancerous lymph node was discovered.
To celebrate the end of all treatment and their 36th wedding anniversary, Marion and Gary went on a magical holiday to New York.
He is now back to full health and weight-lifting again.
He is getting on so well at SC Vital Fitness, in Portsmouth, that he is aiming to enter a weight-lifting competition in the spring.
He says: ‘Getting back to fitness and sport has helped my confidence so much.
‘I’ve always been into fitness and it was tough getting back into it but I feel so good now.
Gary credits his close family with getting him through such a traumatic experience.
And the medical staff who treated him – from his GP to his surgeon.
‘The nurses and staff are so underrated,’ says Gary.
‘You hear things about this and that and people moan about hospitals but I simply couldn’t fault them.
‘And I can honestly say I would not have got better treatment if I had gone private.
‘I can’t emphasise enough how good my GP was. Even my consultant said she saved my life.’
Gary counts himself lucky. Around 82 per cent of people who get it do not survive. The only reason people die is because they do not go to the doctors quickly enough’, says Gary.
‘Mine was caught in the early days and I feel very lucky for that.’
The NHS guidance on oesophageal cancer is that it does not usually cause any symptoms in the early stages when the tumour is small.
It’s only when the tumour gets bigger that symptoms tend to develop.
One of the main symptoms of oesophageal cancer is difficulty swallowing.
This problem may contribute to weight loss which is another common feature of the condition.
You must see your GP if you have problems swallowing and weight loss.
Although these symptoms don’t necessarily mean you have oesophageal cancer, they do need to be investigated.
Oesophageal cancer is uncommon, but it is not rare. It is the ninth most common type of cancer in the UK, with more than 8,500 new cases diagnosed each year.
Oesophageal cancer most commonly affects people over the age of 60, with the average age at diagnosis being 72. The condition is more common in men than in women.
Smoking and drinking alcohol are two of the biggest risk factors for oesophageal cancer, particularly if both activities are combined. Though Gary Martin does not smoke or drink heavily.
People who drink heavily but do not smoke are four times more likely to develop oesophageal cancer than non-drinkers, and people who smoke and do not drink alcohol are twice as likely to develop oesophageal cancer.
For more information on oesophageal cancer and treatment go to nhs.uk or cancerresearchuk.org.