In the United States, stomach cancer is one of the rare forms of cancer. And yet, it is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide.
What is stomach cancer?
First things first. What is a stomach? That may sound like a trick question, but doctors and patients often use the same word to mean different things. In the medical sense, your stomach isn’t just your abdomen – it’s a specific organ, the muscular sac that holds food before it moves on to your intestines.
Stomach (or gastric) cancer, is like other kinds of cancer. It’s a type of cell reproduction that goes out-of-control. The overgrowth of cells, which is a tumor, usually begins on the mucus-producing cells that line the inside of the stomach. If left untreated, the tumor can grow, and eventually spread cancer to other parts of the body.
What causes stomach cancer?
That’s the big question. As is often the case, how and why gastric cancer develops is mysterious. The first cell to become cancerous hosts a DNA copying error – a mistake in the cell’s software that causes uncontrolled division. Some researchers believe this tends to happen at the site of sores or polyps in the stomach lining.
But we don’t know what causes that error in the first place. We do know is that there are a number of factors that elevate your risk of stomach cancer. These risk factors include:
- A family history of gastric cancer;
- Infection with H. pylori – a bacterium that has been linked with stomach ulcers;
- Chronic gastritis – a long-term inflammation of the stomach;
- A diet high in salty, pickled, or smoked foods, and low in fruits and vegetables; and
- A diet high in aflatoxin (a byproduct of mold found in peanuts).
What are the symptoms of stomach cancer?
It depends on the progression of the disease. In the earlier stages, it can produce vague symptoms, such as:
- Loss of appetite;
- Heartburn, bloating, and indigestion; and
In later stages, the symptoms become more severe. They include:
- Blood in the stool;
- Weight loss; and
- Stomach pain, possibly severe.
How is stomach cancer diagnosed?
First, you’ve got to find a doctor. After eliminating other possibilities, there are several tests your doctor might use to look for signs of the disease. First, your doctor might run the fecal occult blood test on your stool to look for blood. Next, your doctor might x-ray your digestive system after you drink a solution of barium (a dye which makes the final image clearer).
Finally, your doctor might perform an endoscopy. During this procedure, a very thin tube with a tiny camera on the end is passed down your throat, so the doctor can make a direct, visual examination of your stomach. If a suspicious are is found, the doctor may take a biopsy – a tissue sample – and inspect it under a microscope. This is a definitive way to diagnose gastric cancer.
How is stomach cancer treated??
The type of treatment you receive depends on several factors, including the disease’s stage of progression, and your overall health. There are three methods of treatment available, which may be used in combination:
- Surgery – The goal is to physically remove the cancerous tumor. A surgeon can accomplish this with minimal damage to the stomach, or by total removal of the stomach, depending on the size of the tumor.
- Radiation therapy – A radiation oncologist will direct beams of energy at the tumor to destroy it. Other tissues may be harmed as a result, and side effects (such as nausea and vomiting) can be considerable.
- Chemotherapy – An oncologist will administer a series of drugs to your whole body, in an effort to shrink a tumor or kill remaining cells. Side effects vary, depending on the type of drug used.
How widespread is stomach cancer?
As we noted before, it’s relatively rare in the US – but still a huge issue, overall. It was estimated that over a million people were diagnosed with the disease in 2007, and over 800,000 would die. In the US alone, it was estimated that over 21,000 new cases would be diagnosed and 10,000 deaths recorded last year.
What can we do to prevent stomach cancer?
Consider the risk factors. People who quit smoking (or never start), maintain a healthy weight, and eat a healthy diet (high in fruits and vegetables, low in salty, pickled, and smoked foods) are in the lowest-risk category.
Diet is thought to be especially significant. Historically, rates of gastric cancer in Japan have been very high because the Japanese diet has tended to be high in salty and pickled foods. As the Japanese diet has become increasingly Westernized, rates of the disease have fallen.
It’s also important to note that, like most other diseases, your chances of success depend on how quickly you catch it. If you have the early symptoms (loss of appetite, indigestion, etc.), talk to your physician about it. You probably don’t have stomach cancer! But the sooner you act, the sooner you can rule it out as a possibility.
Where can we get more information?
Check out No Stomach For Cancer. They’re organizing National Stomach Cancer Awareness Month, and they’ve got a bunch of information about research, education, and events that you can get involved in to show your support for the fight against stomach cancer.