What is Stomach Cancer?

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Stomach cancer or gastric cancer affects around 7,000 people each year in the UK. Stomach cancer is difficult to detect in the early stages because the initial symptoms are also seen in less serious conditions such as persistent indigestion, heart burn, trapped wind, burping and stomach ache.

Some examples of the symptoms that occur in more advanced stages of disease include:

  • Black stools - The presence of blood in stools or black stools are a result of bleeding in the stomach. The stool is colored black due to the alteration of hemoglobin by digestive juices and bacteria.
  • Fluid in the abdomen – Some people develop fluid in the abdomen, a condition called ascites. Cancer cells can irritate the abdominal lining and cause it to secrete excess fluid.
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss – Loss of appetite and weight loss are often signs of late stage disease, but people with early stage stomach cancer can also lose their appetite

Causes and risk factors

Although the exact cause of stomach cancer is not clear, a number of factors have been identified that increase the risk of developing this cancer. Some of the these include:

  • Age of 55 years or older
  • Male gender
  • Smoking
  • Diet high in salt and pickled foods
  • Helicobacter pylori infection

Types of gastric cancer

The types of stomach cancer differ based on the cells where the cancer originates. Almost all stomach cancers develop in the stomach lining, referred to as adenocarcinoma of the stomach. Less common forms of stomach cancer include lymphoma of the stomach and gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs).

Treatment

Stomach cancer cannot usually be cured and treatment is focused on improving patient’s symptoms and quality of life. The treatments that may be offered include chemotherapy or drugs that kill cancer cells, surgery to remove part or all of the stomach (gastrectomy) and radiation therapy.

During a gastrectomy the esophagus is connected to the remaining part of the stomach or the small intestine to provide an alternative digestive system. Chemotherapy may be used before surgery to shrink the tumor and after surgery to help eliminate any residual cancer cells. Radiotherapy may also be administered after surgery to help prevent the cancer from recurring. More advanced stomach cancer that has spread to other organs such as the liver, brain and lungs cannot be cured but these treatments may be used in palliative care, to ease the symptoms as much as possible.

Reviewed by , BSc

Further Reading

Last Updated: Mar 31, 2014

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