DEATH rates from cancer of the gullet, or food pipe, have doubled in the past 40 years, according to a new report.

Latest figures from Cancer Research UK show around 7600 people in the UK die each year from oesophageal cancer, compared with 3800 in 1971. The proportion of the population dying from the cancer has risen by almost half from eight in every 100,000 people to 13.

The increase has been much greater for men, possibly due to lifestyle factors that affect them more than women and a male propensity to ignore early symptoms.

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Experts say the rise in mortality is linked to growing numbers of people developing the disease, one of the most lethal forms of cancer.

Lifestyle factors such as obesity, smoking and alcohol consumption all increase the risk of oesophageal cancer. However, one of the single most important risk factors is persistent heartburn, or acid reflux.

Oesophageal cancer is the sixth most common cause of cancer death in the UK and the fourth most common cause in men, being responsible for around 6% of all male cancer fatalities.

One of its most high profile victims was Inspector Morse actor John Thaw, reportedly a heavy smoker, who died in 2002, a year after being diagnosed with the disease.

Tim Underwood, an oesophageal surgeon and co-leader of Cancer Research UK's International Cancer Genome Consortium project based at the University of Southampton, said: "As a surgeon, I see many patients walk through my door who have not recognised or ignored the symptoms that might be oesophageal cancer for too long, and they only seek help when food starts to get stuck when they swallow. So by the time I see them, it's too late for treatment that could cure them.

"People should be aware that persistent heartburn is not normal. If this is happening to you, you need to see your GP."

The lifetime odds of developing oesophageal cancer are one in 56 for men and one in 110 for women.