Stomach cancer is responsible for nearly a million deaths each year and is one of the most deadly forms of cancer. Unfortunately because the symptoms are often confused with other illnesses, the diagnosis of stomach cancer is sometimes delayed, leading to patients presenting with stomach cancer that has progressed to an advanced stage. Prognosis is poor with a 5 year survival rate of between 5% and 15%.
Very often, in it’s early stages, stomach cancer produces no noticeable symptoms or it may show symptoms that are commonly seen in other less serious illnesses. When the symptoms of stomach cancer become easily noticed, often the disease is at an advanced stage and has metastasized to other parts of the body leading to a poor prognosis.
Stomach Cancer Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of stomach cancer at the three stages:
In the early stages of stomach cancer, if any symptoms are present they could be as simple as a loss of appetite (especially for hard to digest foods like meat), indigestion or heartburn, and abdominal discomfort. Those symptoms are frequently found in the general population and usually don’t signify the presence of stomach cancer, leading to most people ignoring those common symptoms.
In stage 2 (medium stage) the symptoms become slightly more worrisome, but are still not significant enough for most people to warrant a trip to the doctor. At this stage some weakness or a general feeling of fatigue may be experienced. In addition, some bloating of the stomach may be observed after meals.
In stage 3 (late stage stomach cancer) the symptoms become much more serious and easily noticeable. Symptoms include:
- Pain in the upper abdomen
- Nausea and/or Vomiting
- Diarrhea and/or constipation
- Weight loss
- Bleeding which can be seen in the stool. Also this bleeding can lead to anemia
- An illness caused dysphagia that is triggered by a gastric tumor
The problem with stomach cancer is that even the advanced stages of the disease show symptoms that may also be a gastric ulcer or stomach virus.
Stomach Cancer Causes
Most cases of stomach cancer are caused by a bacterium found in the stomach, called Helicobacter pylori.
Surprisingly, diet is not a consideration in most cases of stomach cancer, but some foods like pickled vegetables have been linked with a higher incidence. Cured meats are high in nitrates and nitrites that can be converted to bacteria that has been shown to promote stomach cancer in animals.
Cancer organizations suggest that a varied diet high in fruits and vegetables can help avoid stomach cancer, and in general a healthy diet is a great idea to avoid a number of cancers and heart disease.
Smoking is once again a promoter of cancer with a 40% increased risk for casual smokers and an 80%+ increased risk of stomach cancer for heavy smokers. Smokers tend to get stomach cancer in the upper regions of the stomach, especially the esophagus. Significant alcohol consumption is tentatively linked with stomach cancer, so once again moderation with alcohol is a good thing.
About 10% of stomach cancers show some kind of link to genetic factors and genetic testing is now available for families with a history of stomach cancer.
The Helicobacter pylori bacterium is responsible for between 65% and 80% of stomach cancers, so apart from maintaining a healthy diet and not smoking or drinking excessively, not a lot can be done to avoid this form of cancer.
Males are much more likely than females to contract stomach cancer with some studies suggesting that estrogen plays a role in protecting women from stomach cancer. You are three times more likely to develop stomach cancer if you are male.
Stomach Cancer Detection
In it’s early stages, it is unlikely that a general practitioner would advise tests for stomach cancer because the symptoms are so commonplace. If you have a family history of this type of cancer, it is advised that you get tested early and be vigilent as to the symptoms of this form of cancer.
After the doctor has performed an initial examination to eliminate other causes of the symptoms, lab studies will need to be ordered to confirm stomach cancer.
The other examinations a patient may be asked to do to confirm stomach cancer include:
- A CT scan of the abdomen to determine the location of tumors.
- A Gastroscopic exam which involves the insertion of a fiber optic camera into the stomach
- An upper gastro intestinal series, which involves x-rays of the stomach and surrounding areas
Any abnormal tissue found during a gastroscopic exam may also need to be biopsied to determine if it is cancerous.
Blood tests can also help form a diagnosis and the blood is checked for anemia.
Stomach Cancer Treatment
Unfortunately stomach cancer is difficult to treat, particularly in the late stages. Treatment generally consists of surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. New forms of treatment are being trialled which may lead to better outcomes, but at the moment prognosis is usually not very good with this form of cancer.
Surgical treatment usually involves removing part of the stomach and possibly the surrounding lymph nodes. If the cancer has spread, the surgery may also involve the removal of part of the pancreas or intestines.
If the cancer has spread, the surgical option is often just a palliative solution and aims to extend life instead of curing the disease.
Chemotherapy is unfortunately not very effective in the treatment of stomach cancer and is usually only useful in palliative care and to reduce the size of any tumors. Sometimes chemotherapy is used prior to surgery to reduce the size of the tumors, then used again after surgery to help restrict any remaining cancer growth.
Radiation therapy is also used in combination with chemotherapy and/or surgery to help relieve pain and reduce the size of any tumors. Radiation therapy is also usually used as a palliative measure.