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Stomach Cancer

Alternative names: Stomach Carcinoma, Gastric Carcinoma, Gastric Cancer

What is stomach cancer?
What are the signs of stomach cancer?
What causes stomach cancer?
How does my doctor tell if I have stomach cancer?
How is stomach cancer treated?

What is stomach cancer?

Cancer is when abnormal cells grow and damage the tissues that make up the organs of the body. Stomach cancer can develop in any part of the stomach and spread to other parts of the body, including the esophagus (the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach), or small intestine. Fortunately, the stomach cancer rate in the United States has gone down dramatically over the past 60 years.

What are the signs of stomach cancer?

As with many cancers, there are often no symptoms in the early stages of stomach cancer. Later symptoms can include:

  • A burning feeling, like heartburn or indigestion
  • Stomach and/or abdomen pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of weight
  • Feeling weak or fatigued
  • Bleeding (vomiting blood or having blood in the stool)

These symptoms can be caused by less serious health problems, such as the stomach flu, or a peptic ulcer.

What causes stomach cancer?

Like other cancers, the exact cause of stomach cancer is unknown. Certain things increase a person's chances of developing stomach cancer:

  • Age. Stomach cancer is found most often in people over age 55.
  • Gender. Stomach cancer affects men twice as often as women.
  • Ethnicity. Stomach cancer is more common in African-Americans than in people of European descent.
  • Infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), the bacteria that is the main cause of peptic ulcers. Some researchers believe H. pylori can also contribute to stomach cancer.
  • Stomach surgery
  • Smoking
  • Exposure to toxic fumes or other environmental pollutants

How does my doctor tell if I have stomach cancer?

In addition to a complete physical examination, your doctor may want to do one or more of the following tests to see if you have stomach cancer:

  • A hemoccult test, to check for the presence of blood in your stool (bowel movement)
  • In an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy, the doctor uses an endoscope - a tiny video camera mounted on a thin, flexible tube with a light at the end - to look inside your esophagus and stomach. The doctor inserts the endoscope through your mouth. You will be given medication to make you relaxed and drowsy during the procedure, which only takes 15-20 minutes.
  • An upper gastrointestinal X-ray (upper GI series) shows the condition of your esophagus and stomach. Before the test, you will drink a chalky material that helps the esophagus and stomach show up on the X-ray.
  • A biopsy will help a doctor check body tissue for signs of cancer cells. The doctor will take the tissue sample during the endoscopy procedure. A pathologist will then study the sample with a microscope to look for cancer cells.

How is stomach cancer treated?

Surgery is the most common treatment for stomach cancer. Other options include chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Non-Surgical

  • Radiation therapy damages cancer cells and stops them from growing through the use of high-powered rays. The treatment is usually given five days a week for five to six weeks. The patient does not need to stay in the hospital between treatments.
  • Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Several different drugs may be used, and they may be taken orally or injected into a muscle. There are recovery periods between cycles of chemotherapy.

Surgery

  • The operation to remove part or all of the stomach is called a gastrectomy. If only part of the stomach is removed, the surgeon will connect the remaining part of the stomach to the esophagus (feeding tube) and small intestine. After a total gastrectomy, the doctor will connect the esophagus directly to the small intestine.

A doctor may recommend radiation therapy and chemotherapy after a gastrectomy.

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