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6 Facts About Stomach Cancer

Symptoms You Shouldn’t Ignore

Many people experience heartburn or indigestion from time to time, but when do these symptoms point to a serious health condition?

Here are six things you should know about stomach cancer, including the symptoms you shouldn’t ignore.

  1. Stomach cancer is on the decline in the U.S. but remains one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in the world.
  2. Research confirms that in the last 10 years in the U.S., the number of cases has declined by 1.5% each year. Though the exact cause of the decline is unknown, evidence suggests a combination of the following:

    • Increased use of refrigeration for proper food storage
    • Reduced consumption of salty, fatty foods

    Increased use of antibiotics, which eliminate H. pylori, a bacteria associated with stomach cancer

    However, the incidence of gastroesophageal junction cancer, which is located where the esophagus meets the stomach, is on the rise, although it’s still rare.

  3. Symptoms of stomach cancer can be overlooked.
  4. In the early stages of stomach cancer, you may not experience any symptoms, or you may experience indigestion or discomfort. These symptoms can be mistaken for other gastrointestinal issues, making it difficult to detect early. ”Although symptoms may be vague in nature, if they persist or are severe, a medical evaluation should be sought,” says Ryan P. Merkow, MD, MS, Northwestern Medicine surgical oncologist at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

    In more advanced stages, you may experience other symptoms, including:

    • Blood in your stool or vomit
    • Vomiting
    • Heartburn
    • Nausea
    • Loss of appetite
    • Unexplained weight loss
    • Pain in the abdomen near the belly button
    • Feeling full after eating only a small amount
  5. Certain factors may put you at increased risk for stomach cancer – including your diet.
  6. Stomach cancer occurs most commonly in individuals over age 55, with men being twice as likely to be affected.

    Commonly occurring H. pylori bacteria attack the stomach lining and are usually responsible for stomach ulcers. Research has also shown that they may increase your risk of stomach cancer.

    Other risk factors include:

    • A diet high in salted, smoked foods, and low in fruits and vegetables
    • Alcohol and tobacco use
    • Gastric polyps
    • Ulcers
    • Exposure to certain chemicals
    • Pernicious anemia, or inability to absorb vitamin B12
  7. A number of tests are used to confirm a diagnosis of stomach cancer.
  8. If you are experiencing symptoms, your primary care provider may suggest seeing a specialist. A number of tests and procedures can be used to diagnose stomach cancer, including:

    • Fecal occult blood test
    • Upper GI series using a barium swallow with X-ray
    • Upper endoscopy
    • Endoscopic ultrasound
    • Biopsy during a gastroscopy
  9. Treatment depends on your age, overall health and the extent of the disease.
  10. Because of its location, stomach cancer can spread before symptoms are evident. The stage of cancer signifies the extent of your disease, including if it has spread. Based on your unique situation, your team will decide to use one or a combination of the following treatment options:

    • Surgery to remove the part of the stomach affected by the cancer
    • Chemotherapy
    • Radiation therapy
    • Targeted therapy to attack specific cancer cells, without harming other organs
    • Immunotherapy
    • Palliative care to relieve pain
  11. Clinical trials provide more options to treat stomach cancer.
  12. For eligible individuals, clinical trials are designed to seek improved outcomes for a number of conditions, including situations where there aren’t any other treatment options.

    ”There are several important randomized trials underway to determine the most effective combination of systemic treatments for more advanced stomach cancers, including the use of targeted agents,” says Dr. Merkow.“Patients should speak with their oncologist to learn more about these options.”

    Northwestern Medicine Cancer Care