Stomach Cancer can be a life-threatening disease that starts in mucus-producing cells in the stomach lining. Often referred to as adenocarcinoma or gastric cancer, stomach cancer involves malignant cells that slowly form gastrointestinal carcinoid tumors, lymphomas, or gastrointestinal stromal tumors over many years. Scientist believed that gastric cancers caused by H. Pylori bacterial infections.
Stomach cancer tends to spread (metastasize) through the stomachs walls to affect adjoining organs including the spleen and pancreas, and eventually into the lymph nodes. Once the cancerous cells reach the bloodstream, they can spread to distant organs including the lungs, bones, and liver.
Medical science advancements have reduced the incident in death rates associated with stomach (gastric) cancer over the last six decades in America. Back in the 1930s, cancer the stomach was the leading cause of death of American men who died of some form of cancer. Over the last 90 years, the death rate involving stomach (gastric) cancer has dropped markedly. This is thought to be the result of advancements in medical tecnology and better forms of treatment.
Who Is at Risk for Stomach Cancer?
While anyone can develop stomach cancer, there are certain risk factors that are known to increase the potential risk of developing the disease. In certain parts of the world, including Latin America, Eastern Europe, Korea, China, Japan, stomach cancer ranked second of all cancer-related deaths around the globe. The most widely known risk factors associated with stomach cancer involve:
- Gender – Being male significantly increases the individual's chances of developing stomach cancer.
- Age – Being older increases the risk of developing the disease.
- Smoking Tobacco Products
- Consuming a diet deficient in vegetables and fruit but rich in meat, smoke fish, poorly preserved foods, and salted food.
- Pernicious Anemia – Individuals that have been previously diagnosed with chronic progressive disease pernicious anemia are more likely to develop stomach cancer because of their inability to absorb vitamin B12.
- Benign Duodenal or Stomach Ulcer Disease – Patients who had a portion of their stomach removed to treat ulcers in the duodenum or stomach have an increased potential risk of developing stomach cancer in the remaining organ, especially if 15 years or more have passed after the surgery.
- Genetic Predisposition – Individuals with a family history of cancer of the stomach are at an increased risk of developing the disease.
- Blood Type A – People with Blood Type A are more at risk compared to those with Blood Type O, B, or AB.
There are other risk factors associated with the personal medical history that can negatively impact the risk of developing cancer of the stomach. These include:
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Consuming too much meat, process foods or salty foods
- Neglecting to exercise regularly
- Not properly storing or cooking food
The doctor may recommend a screening test to determine if the patient is at risk of developing stomach cancer. The test works well for individuals at risk who might not yet be experiencing common symptoms associated with the disease.
Many of the initial symptoms of stomach cancer in its early development are nonspecific and vague. During its onset, the individual might notice certain specific symptoms that include:
- Difficulty when swallowing due to the development of a tumor close to the esophagus in the upper portion of the stomach.
- Frequent heartburn
- Mild discomfort in the upper abdominal region leading to a loss of appetite and nausea.
- Constant bloating
- Stomach Pain that becomes significantly worse after consuming meals.
- Early Satiety - Feeling full after consuming a small amount of food.
- Jaundice where the eyes and skin take on a yellowish discoloration.
As the disease progresses, the symptoms often exacerbate and lead to:
- Unexpected weight loss
- Excessive fatigue
- Severe vomiting and nausea due to some form of blockage that does not allow the stomach to drain.
- Excessive loss of blood including passing dark black blood-digested stools, vomiting blood or a substance that appears like coffee grounds.
- Iron deficiency anemia leading to low red blood cell numbers
Diagnosing Stomach Cancer
Many people suffering from stomach cancer do not experience any symptoms when the disease is in an early stage. Doctors typically diagnose cancer of the stomach after the disease has progressed significantly. To validate a diagnosis, the physician will conduct a comprehensive physical examination to look for any abnormality. Usually, a blood test will be ordered that can identify the presence of an H. Pylori bacterial infection that is thought to cause many gastric cancers.
Any indicators of the presence of stomach cancer usually require further diagnostic testing that can identify suspected tumors or any other associated abnormality of the esophagus and stomach. Some of these tests could include:
- A Biopsy – The doctor will collect a tissue sample, usually through fine needle aspiration, where a long fine needle is inserted through the abdominal wall to collect a small sample of stomach tissue that can be analyzed by a pathologist under a microscope in a laboratory setting.
- Imaging Tests – The physician may order an x-ray, PET scan, CT (computerized tomography) scan, or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan that provides detailed images of the stomach, pelvis, and abdomen to identify an abnormality, cancerous mass, or tumor.
- Upper Endoscopic Test – The doctor can insert a thin tube with an attached camera into the throat to enter the stomach and look for any suspicious tissue that can be collected (biopsy) for analysis.
- Exploratory Surgery – A surgeon can perform exploratory surgery (laparoscopic) to see if the cancer has spread (metastasized) beyond the stomach or esophagus and reached the abdomen or thoracic cavity. Usually, this procedure involves making several small incisions in the abdominal wall before inserting a special camera that collects and transmits images to an operating room monitor.
After a diagnosis of stomach cancer has been verified, the doctor will need to stage the stomach cancer to determine its progression before developing an effective plan of care for treating the disease. These four stages include:
- Stage I – In the initial stage, the disease only affects the stomach or esophagus and possibly spread to neighboring lymph nodes.
- Stage II – As the disease progresses, it moves deeper into the muscle layers of the stomach wall or esophagus and possibly to additional lymph nodes.
- Stage III – At this highly progressive stage, the cancer has now reached neighboring structures and effects the lymph nodes more extensively.
- Stage IV – At its most progressive stage, the cancer has metastasized to distant sites throughout the body, possibly to the lungs, liver, breast, bones, or brain.
Treating the Disease
The doctor typically has distinct options for treating stomach cancer, at all phases and progressions of the disease. This includes surgical procedures, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted drugs, and palliative (supportive) care at the final stage of stomach cancer when every other appropriate treatment is no longer effective.
This includes surgical procedures that remove tumors, portions of the stomach, lymph nodes, or the entire stomach when necessary. Radiation uses x-ray technology to destroy cancer cells, while chemotherapy uses chemical medications to kill cancer cells. Targeted therapy uses specialized medications that destroy abnormal cells. It is often used in conjunction with standard chemotherapy medications.