Stomach Cancer Awareness Month: Risk Factors and Treatment
by Jane Meggitt
Approximately 27,600 new cases of stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, will be diagnosed in the United States this year. November is Stomach Cancer Awareness Month. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of stomach cancer and what you can do to raise awareness of this disease.
Stomach Cancer Awareness Month
Stomach cancer is the seventh most common cause of cancer death in the U.S. The first official Stomach Cancer Awareness Month was launched in 2010.
Wear a powdery blue or periwinkle blue ribbon to show support during Stomach Cancer Awareness Month for those living with gastric cancers. Goals include raising more money for gastric cancer research, educating people about the risk factors and symptoms of stomach cancer and participating in walks and other events designed to increase awareness.
The most common type of stomach cancer is adenocarcinoma. These tumors account for up to 95% of stomach cancers. Adenocarcinomas develop in the gland cells of the mucosa, the stomach’s inner lining.
There are two primary types of adenocarcinomas in the stomach —intestinal and diffuse. Intestinal adenocarcinomas are more likely to respond to targeted therapy. The diffuse type is more difficult to treat and also spreads more rapidly.
Gastrointestinal stromal tumors are relatively rare. GISTs are sarcomas, cancers that arise from various tissues. They appear most often in the stomach or small intestine, although GISTs may start anywhere in the gastrointestinal tract. GISTs tend to grow slowly. Not all of them metastasize (spread).
Neuroendocrine tumors start in the cells of the digestive tract that act as either endocrine or nerve cells. The majority of these tumors are slow-growing and do not metastasize, but that is not true for all of them.
Men are diagnosed with stomach cancer more often than women. Older people are more likely than younger ones to develop stomach cancer. Non-Hispanic whites have a lower incidence of stomach cancer in the U.S. than those of Hispanic, African, Asian or Native American descent.
A family history of stomach cancer can predispose people to this disease. It’s interesting to note that most people diagnosed with stomach cancer have no such family history.
As with so many other cancers, the main risk factor that people can control is smoking. Being obese and overweight is another risk factor for the disease. So is excessive alcohol consumption — more than three drinks per day.
Diet plays a crucial role. Those consuming a diet including large amounts of salted or processed foods and grilled or charcoaled meats with little in the way of fruits increase their odds of developing gastric cancer. However, eating a lot of fresh fruits significantly lowers the risk.
For reasons that are not understood, those with type A blood have a higher incidence of stomach cancer. Perhaps the greatest risk factor is the bacterial infection known as Helicobacter pylori.
Causes of Stomach Cancer
Roughly half the people in the world are infected with Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori. It is a leading cause of gastrointestinal diseases and is linked to stomach cancer. Most people infected with H. pylori will not develop stomach cancer.
Stomach Cancer Symptoms
When stomach cancer is caught early, the prognosis is more favorable. Unfortunately, gastric cancer has few symptoms in the initial stages. By the time symptoms appear, the tumor may have grown considerably or spread.
See your doctor as soon as possible if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal swelling
- Blood in the stool
- Fullness after small meals
- Lack of appetite
- Vomiting, with or without blood
- Unexpected weight loss
Stomach Cancer Diagnosis
If a doctor suspects stomach cancer after an initial evaluation, the patient is referred to a gastroenterologist. Tests to determine whether a patient has stomach cancer include:
- Upper endoscopy: A thin, lighted tube known as an endoscope is passed down the throat into the digestive tract. The endoscope includes a tiny camera through which the doctor can view the esophagus, stomach and the start of the small intestine. If abnormalities are seen, the endoscope may take a small tissue sample for a biopsy. The sample is sent to a pathologist for examination under a microscope.
- Endoscopic ultrasound: A standard endoscopy cannot biopsy those abnormalities deep within the stomach wall. For that purpose, an endoscopic ultrasound is used. This involves guiding a thin needle into the stomach wall via ultrasound to retrieve a tissue sample.
Other tests to see the gastrointestinal tract in more detail or determine whether the cancer has spread include:
- CT scans
- PET scans
Stomach Cancer Treatment
Stomach cancer treatment depends on the extent of the disease. Surgery is generally performed — depending on the patient’s age and overall health — to remove the cancer. Surgery is usually followed by radiation or chemotherapy. Patients who cannot undergo surgery may still have radiation or chemo.
In some cases, either part of the stomach or the entire stomach could require removal. If the entire stomach is removed — a procedure known as a total gastrectomy — the esophagus is connected to the small intestine so that the patient may still have food moving through their digestive system.
Immunotherapy drugs may also be used during treatment. They target “checkpoints” (proteins) on immune cells. These cells are used by cancer cells to avoid an immune system attack. These drugs switch on the immune cells to combat cancer cells.
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We offer GASTROQ™ GI Pathology, the premier provider of GI pathology services capable of fulfilling unique gastroenterology practice requirements. Our GI pathology fellowship-trained, board-certified pathologists have extensive laboratory experiences in processing upper and lower GI specimens. For more information about our services and partners, contact us today.
Jane Meggitt’s work has appeared in dozens of publications including USA Today, Zack’s, Financial Advisor, nj.com, The Houston Chronicle and The Nest. She is a graduate of New York University.
American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) – Gastric Cancer Awareness Month
American Cancer Society – What Is Stomach Cancer?
Cleveland Clinic – H. Pylori Infection
Mayo Clinic – Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection