What Is Gastric Cancer?
The medical term gastric cancer is more commonly known as stomach cancer, and it is one of the more common cancers around the world, except for the United States. With gastric cancer, abnormal cells grow on the inner lining of the walls of the stomach. If undetected, these cells become cancerous and break through the stomach wall. After this occurs, the cancer can spread to other vital organs, such as the liver, which is very serious.
What Causes Stomach Cancer?
The cause of stomach cancer is a genetic mutation of the stomach’s cells over time. If left untreated, these cells can grow into a malignant tumor and then metastasize (spread to other organs). Researchers believe that genetics (family history) greatly influences whether or not someone may develop gastric cancer, but there are also risk factors to be aware of to help lessen your chances of developing gastric cancer. Other than family history, other risk factors include:
- Infection from Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria
- A high-salt diet
- A diet deficient in fruits and vegetables
- Stomach polyps
- Long-term alcohol abuse
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Not storing or cooking food properly
Gastric cancer is also more common in men age 50 and above and people of Asian, South American, or Belarusian descent.
What Are the Symptoms of Gastric Cancer?
Unfortunately, there are no early detectable symptoms of stomach cancer. You won’t be able to feel your cells mutating. Because it is difficult to detect in its early stages, gastric cancer is one of the hardest to diagnose. However, patients do experience symptoms in the later stages of gastric cancer, such as loss of appetite and sudden weight loss, nausea and vomiting, blood in the stool, stomach pain that may worsen after meals, and unexplained fatigue.
How Is Gastric Cancer Diagnosed?
After you self-report your symptoms to your doctor, they will perform a physical exam and a complete blood count (CBC), which evaluates your overall health and lets your gastroenterologist know if H. pylori are present (a bacteria very commonly linked to stomach cancer).
If your physician believes you may be at risk for a stomach cancer diagnosis, they will order more testing to confirm it. This may include a biopsy of the stomach, an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy, or imaging tests, such as CT scans. These more invasive tests are looking in particular for abnormalities in the stomach, as well as tumors and polyps.
What Is the Treatment for Gastric Cancer?
Each individual’s treatment will look slightly different when it comes to stomach cancer. Treatment depends on where the cancer is located, where the cancer originated from, the patient’s overall health, stage of the cancer, and age. The first-line treatments for gastric cancer are surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Immunotherapy can be deployed as a secondary option. One of the main concerns with gastric cancer is keeping it from spreading to other organs. Once the cancer metastasizes, it is difficult to treat.
If gastric cancer is discovered in the earliest stages, tumors can be removed using a procedure known as endoscopic submucosal dissection, or ESD. When surgery is involved in gastric cancer treatment, it is because the tumor(s) have penetrated the deeper walls of the stomach. In these cases, part or all of the stomach is removed, and the remaining parts are attached to the esophagus and small intestine so that the patient can eat and drink normally. In many cases, chemotherapy and radiation kill cancer cells and shrink the tumors before surgery is necessary.
What Is the Outlook for Gastric Cancer Patients?
The long-term outlook for gastric cancer patients is much more favorable if the cancer is caught in its early stages. However, because there are no noticeable symptoms, the National Cancer Institute says patients with gastric cancer have a 30 percent five-year survival rate. A majority of the survivors had localized gastric cancer, which means it was localized to the stomach only. If the stomach is not the original source of cancer and cancer has spread from nearby organs, it can be much more difficult to treat.
Is Gastric Cancer Preventable?
There isn’t a way to prevent any type of cancer with a certain diet, vitamin, or supplement. However, you can minimize your chances of developing cancer by adopting a healthier lifestyle. This means maintaining a body mass index (BMI) in the normal range, eating a balanced diet low in fats such as red meat, exercising regularly, moderating alcohol, and quitting smoking. There are medications that your doctor can prescribe if they believe you’re at risk of developing gastric cancer.
If you have concerns about gastric cancer, such as a family history of it, you can also request an early screening test from your gastroenterologist. One of the best methods is upper endoscopy to carefully examine the lining of the stomach.