Thumbnail image of: Digestive System: Illustration

Stomach Cancer

What is stomach cancer?

Stomach cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the inner lining of the stomach. Stomach cancer is also called gastric cancer.

The sooner cancer is found and treated, the better your chances for recovery. However, even advanced cancer can usually be treated. Treatment may slow or stop the growth of the cancer and ease symptoms for a time. Ask your healthcare provider what you can expect with the type of cancer that you have.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of stomach cancer is not known. You may have a greater risk of developing stomach cancer if you:

  • Are male or older than 60
  • Eat a lot of salted, smoked, or poorly preserved foods and do not eat a lot of fruits and vegetables
  • Have a mother, father, sister, or brother who has had stomach cancer or colon polyps
  • Have a stomach infection caused by H. pylori bacteria
  • Have chronic gastritis, which means that your stomach lining is irritated, raw, and painful
  • Have had polyps in your stomach or colon
  • Have had stomach surgery for peptic ulcer disease
  • Have pernicious anemia, which is a low count of red blood cells caused by a lack of vitamin B12

What are the symptoms?

You may not have symptoms until late in the disease. Symptoms may include:

  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Feeling full after eating small amounts of food
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexpected weight loss

What is metastasis?

The spread of cancer cells from one part of the body to other parts is called metastasis. What causes cancer to spread is not known. Cancer cells can:

  • Grow into the area around the tumor
  • Travel to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or the lymph system. The lymph system is part of your body’s system for fighting infection. The lymph system consists of lymph nodes that store blood cells (lymphocytes) to fight infection and vessels that carry fluid, nutrients, and wastes between your body and your bloodstream.

New tumors then grow in these other areas. When stomach cancer spreads, it most often affects the lungs, the tissue inside of your belly, and liver. Sometimes your first symptoms of cancer are in the part of the body where the cancer has spread. The symptoms of stomach cancer that has spread to another part of your body depend on where the tumors are. For example:

  • If the cancer has spread to the liver, you may have yellowish skin, pain, or swelling in your upper belly.
  • If the cancer has spread to the lungs, you may have a cough or trouble breathing.
  • If cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, you may have heaviness, aching, and swelling in your arms, legs, or belly.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests may include:

  • A sample of a bowel movement tested for blood
  • Blood tests
  • An upper GI X-ray, for which you swallow a chalky liquid called barium that coats your stomach so that it shows clearly on X-rays
  • An endoscopy, which uses a thin flexible tube passed through your mouth into your stomach. This tube, called an endoscope, allows your healthcare provider to look in the stomach for abnormal areas. Your provider uses the scope to take a small sample of tissue, called a biopsy, for lab tests.
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the belly

How is it treated?

You and your healthcare provider will discuss possible treatments. You may also talk with a cancer specialist.

Some things to think about when making treatment decisions are:

  • Your age
  • Your overall health
  • The stage of the cancer (how advanced the cancer is)
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body

Possible treatments are:

  • Surgery to remove part or all of the stomach. If all of your stomach is removed, the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach (esophagus) will be connected to your small intestine. After this type of surgery, you will only be able to eat very small amounts of food at one time. Some people who have had their stomach removed need a feeding tube inserted into their intestine to receive extra liquid nutrition.
  • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells

If the tumor cannot be removed, and it is blocking the passage out of the stomach into the small intestine you may need a procedure to bypass the tumor so that you can continue to eat or get nutrition another way. This can be done several ways:

  • Part of the small intestine can be moved and reattached to the upper part of the stomach.
  • A stiff tube, called a stent, can be placed between your esophagus and intestine.
  • A laser, which is an intense beam of light, can be passed through a small, flexible tube put into the mouth and down into the stomach, to create an opening in the tumor.
  • A feeding tube can be inserted into the intestine and liquid nutrition given through the tube.

Often, more than 1 type of treatment is used. After treatment, you will need to have regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider.

Your treatment will also include:

  • Preventing infections
  • Controlling pain or other symptoms you may have
  • Controlling the side effects from treatments
  • Helping you manage your life with cancer

Ask your healthcare provider about clinical trials that might be available to you. Clinical trials are research studies to find effective cancer treatments. It’s always your choice whether you take part in one or not.

How can I take care of myself?

If you have been diagnosed with stomach cancer:

  • Talk about your cancer and treatment options with your healthcare provider. Make sure you understand your choices.
  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
  • Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

Other things that may help include:

  • Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise as recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Try to reduce stress and take time for activities that you enjoy. It may help to talk with a counselor about your illness.
  • Talk with your family and your healthcare providers about your concerns. Ask your healthcare provider any questions you have about the disease, treatments, side effects of the treatments, sexuality, support groups, and anything else that concerns you.
  • If you smoke, try to quit.
  • Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol. It may interfere with medicines you are taking. Alcohol can also make it harder for white blood cells to fight infections.
  • Tell your provider if your treatment causes discomfort. Usually there are ways to help you feel more comfortable.

How can I help prevent the cancer from spreading or coming back?

  • Complete the full course of surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy treatments ordered by your healthcare provider.
  • See your healthcare provider right away if you notice a return of any previous symptoms, or you develop new symptoms.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-05-29
Last reviewed: 2014-03-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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