Health Care

Stomach Cancer 101 — Symptoms, Detection and Treatments

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Even though stomach cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer in the world, there are no regular screening guidelines for it. Many of the tests available today are inaccurate and can result in false positives. This presents a dilemma for patients, because stomach cancer symptoms rarely develop in the early stages.

What is Stomach Cancer?

Stomach cancer, also called gastric cancer, develops when cells in the stomach begin to mutate and multiply out of control. Because the tumors are impossible to see from outside the body, stomach cancer often goes undetected in its early stages. In fact, many cases aren’t diagnosed until years after the cancer begins to develop.

Types of Stomach Cancer

Cancers in different parts of the stomach can cause different symptoms and have different outcomes. The majority of stomach cancers develop from the cells forming the innermost lining of the stomach (the mucosa). Additional types of stomach cancers include:

  • Carcinoid tumors start in the hormone-making cells of the stomach, and most can’t spread
  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) start in the interstitial cells of the stomach wall
  • Lymphoma, sometimes found in the wall of the stomach, is a cancer that affects the immune system tissue

There are other types of cancer that can start in the stomach, like small cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and leiomyosarcoma, but they are very rare.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Stomach Cancer

Stomach cancer and many gastrointestinal disorders share the same symptoms, making it even harder to get to a quick diagnosis. Stomach cancer symptoms can include:

  • Bloating after meals
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling full when eating little
  • Persistent and severe heartburn
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Persistent, unexplained nausea
  • Severe indigestion that doesn’t go away
  • Stomach pain
  • Unintentional weight loss

If you’re experiencing symptoms that worry you, it’s always best to call your doctor.

Knowing Your Risk Factors

Knowing your risk for stomach cancer can help you take steps to prevent it and helps inform ongoing health conversations with your doctor. Many factors can impact stomach cancer risk, including:

  • Age: Your risk increases as you grow older
  • Cigarette use: Your risk increases with the number of cigarettes you smoke each day
  • Diet: Your risk increases when you eat a lot of salty, pickled, smoked and processed foods, especially over the course of many years
  • Exposure to certain toxins: Your risk increase with ongoing exposure to metal, coal and rubber
  • Family history: Your risk increases if someone else in your family has had stomach cancer
  • Ongoing stomach issues: Your risk increases if you live with chronic stomach issues, such as pernicious anemia or GERD
  • Stomach polyps: Every polyp presents a risk of turning into cancer

Getting a Stomach Cancer Diagnosis

If your doctor thinks your symptoms might point to stomach cancer, you'll be asked to have an endoscopy. During the endoscopy, your doctor will look for anything suspicious. And, if something is found, tissue can be collected for a biopsy.

Imaging tests may also be used to look for stomach cancer, including CT scans or barium swallow testing, which is a special type of X-ray.

Staging Stomach Cancer

If you or a loved one is diagnosed with stomach cancer, the next step is to determine its stage through additional imaging tests, like PET scans. Understanding how far the cancer has progressed helps your doctor decide which treatments to recommend.

Your doctor may also recommend exploratory surgery to see if the cancer has spread to your chest or abdomen.

Stomach cancer stages include:

Stage I: The tumor is confined to the top layer of tissue lining inside of the stomach or esophagus and cancer cells may have spread to a few nearby lymph nodes.

Stage II: The cancer has spread deeper, growing into the layer of muscle in the stomach or esophageal wall, as well as spreading to more lymph nodes.

Stage III: The cancer has grown through all the layers of the stomach or esophagus and nearby structures. Or it could be a smaller cancer that has spread extensively to the lymph nodes.

Stage IV: This cancer has spread to other areas of the body.

Treating Stomach Cancer

At AdventHealth, we strive to be at the forefront of the latest advances in surgical techniques to reduce pain, accelerate recovery times and lower the risk of complications — all so you can feel better, faster.

Our highly skilled surgeons can treat you with pioneering procedures that are rapidly becoming the standard in digestive-cancer care. And, when needed, we’ll combine surgical procedures with chemotherapy and radiation to help support your stomach cancer treatment. Our treatment options include:

Chemotherapy and Targeted Drug Treatment

Chemotherapy for stomach cancer is administered before surgery to shrink a tumor and make it easier to remove. It’s also used after surgery to kill cancer cells that may have remained in the body. Sometimes it is used on its own, but is often combined with other therapies, such as radiation therapy.

In targeted therapy, drugs are used to attack specific abnormalities of cancer cells or to provoke your immune system to kill cancer cells (immunotherapy). Targeted drug therapy is often used along with chemotherapy drugs.

Your doctor can run tests of your cancer cells to determine which of these treatments are right for you.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy can shrink a tumor, making it easier to remove during surgery. It can also be used post-surgery to kill any cancer cells that remained in the body. If you have gastroesophageal junction cancer, you’ll likely receive radiation and chemotherapy at the same time, before surgery.

In advanced stages of stomach cancer, radiation therapy can also be used to offset the side effects caused by large tumors.

Stomach Cancer Surgery

The goal of cancer surgery is to remove all of the cancer. Your doctor may recommend one of the these surgical procedures:

Early-stage removal of tumors from the stomach lining: Done via endoscopy for very small cancers on the inside lining of the stomach.

Lymph node removal: Lymph nodes in your abdomen are removed to look for cancer cells.

Subtotal gastrectomy: The part of the stomach affected by the cancer is removed.

Surgery to relieve signs and symptoms: Part of the stomach is removed to help people with advanced stomach cancer feel more comfortable.

Total gastrectomy: The entire stomach is removed along with some surrounding tissue and the part of the esophagus that connects to the small intestine.

Facing Stomach Cancer, Together

When you or a loved one are diagnosed with stomach cancer, you want expert and compassionate care, close to home. That’s why at AdventHeatlh, we’ve designed a whole-person approach to care that focuses on healing every aspect of your health. Our caring team will be at your side for every step of your journey, from diagnosis through recovery, making sure you heal in body, mind and spirit. If you’re concerned that you have symptoms of stomach cancer, we’re here to help

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