When Cath Burrows’ brother belched after eating, his family thought nothing of it – even laughing it off as typical behaviour of a burly man.
But little did any of them know the real cause of his frequent burping – he was living with a devastating and deadly disease, which would eventually rob him of his life.
Three days before his 53rd birthday – after a prolonged period of suffering chest pains and other issues – Jeff Cooper was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, which affects the long tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach.
It came as a major shock to him and his loved ones. And just three months later, the married father-of-three was dead.
February is Oesophageal Cancer Awareness Month and Jeff’s sister Cath, who lives in Alnwick, wants to raise the profile of this ‘relatively unknown form of cancer’ in his memory.
Cath, 48, said: “It was four years ago that my brother was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, just days before his 53rd birthday. He died within three months of diagnosis.
“Although he, his siblings, family and friends knew nothing about this type of cancer until it was far too late for him, I would like to do what I can in his memory to stop anyone else having to go through this without any awareness of the typical common symptoms.
“I do remember one particular hospital visit to see him when he said to me ‘this is just awful. I’m in so much pain. I wouldn’t want for anyone to have to go through this. Not anyone.’
“It really is such a classic cliché to use but if just one person reads this article and actively seeks an appointment with their GP to discuss their symptoms at an early stage, then my brother’s untimely death won’t have been in vain.”
Oesophageal cancer is more common in men than women. Symptoms can include difficulty swallowing; persistent indigestion or heartburn; bringing up food soon after eating; loss of appetite and weight loss; and pain or discomfort in your upper tummy, chest or back.
According to www.nhs.uk, it’s time to see your GP if you experience swallowing difficulties; heartburn on most days for three weeks or more; or any other unusual or persistent symptoms.
Cath and her family wish they had been aware of the tell-tale signs, before it was too late.
“Not one of us were aware of oesophageal cancer and unfortunately, a lot of people have symptoms but don’t do anything about it,” she said.
“Jeff used to belch after eating, but we used to take the Mickey out of him. I just thought he’s a big ogre chap and I would say ‘oh for God’s sake, stop it’. We thought it was something of nothing,
“He then started to complain about having pain in his chest – a feeling of heartburn. He didn’t see a GP at first; it wasn’t until it was persistently nagging him that he went to get it checked out. He was diagnosed with cancer, but it was too late for him.”
Jeff, who was also a grandfather, died in December 2014, and Cath says those final few months of his life were heartbreaking.
“It was just so shockingly quick – three months,” said Cath, who works for Arup in Newcastle.
“He was an 18-stone chap, but he went down to nine stone in just three months and became a shell of man. He had everything to live for, he had a great sense of humour and he was a really good guy.”
For more information, visit www.actionagainstheartburn.org.uk or www.nhs.uk