This story could save your life

Polly Grundy with Academic Gastroenterologist Dr Vincent Ho

Image: Polly Grundy with Academic Gastroenterologist Dr Vincent Ho

Heart burn might not inspire you to book an appointment with your GP, but it’s one of the many easily ignorable symptoms of the fastest growing cancer (in terms of incidence) in the Western World. It is also the deadly disease that took Polly Grundy’s husband in 2012.

“My husband was a devoted 49-year-old father of two boys, loving husband and to many their best uncle, best brother and best friend. He’d been going to the GP with heart burn for three years before developing a further symptom — difficulty in swallowing — in 2012 which led to the devastating diagnosis of oesophageal cancer,” she says.

“By the time he was diagnosed it was too late.”

According to Academic Gastroenterologist at Western Sydney University Dr Vincent Ho — who specialises in research related to oesophageal cancer — this isn’t uncommon, with more than 85% of patients diagnosed with the disease deemed terminal because they either ignored symptoms or were misdiagnosed.

“There is a very low survival rate with oesophageal cancer because treatment is only really effective if the cancer is found at an early stage. That’s why it is so vital with this disease for people to be aware of the symptoms and to not be afraid to go to their GP if they’re worried,” Dr Ho says.

“The key in reducing the mortality rates when it comes to oesophageal cancer will be prevention, and using non-invasive strategies to screen the population. We have already seen the huge impact this can have with the screening of colon and cervical cancer that already takes place.”  

The other key factor in reducing mortality will be research, something that brought Polly and Dr Ho together in 2015 when the Mark Grundy Oesophageal Cancer Awareness Group Incorporated (OCAGI) funded the Translational Gastroenterology Group, within the University’s School of Medicine.

The group are currently working on uncovering secrets of the oesophageal microbiome (i.e. the natural population of microbes that reside in the oesophagus) to determine links between pre-cancerous changes and oesophageal cancer. It is hoped this research could aid the development of non-invasive screening strategies.

Quick facts: 

  • Over 1,300 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in Australia each year
  • It is the fastest growing cancer in Australia, with an increase of 600% in the past 10 years
  • Over 85% of patients are diagnosed terminal because they have dismissed symptoms, been misdiagnosed or presented with no symptoms at all


12 September 2017

Emma Sandham, Senior Media Officer