Stomach cancer is an uncommon type of cancer that develops when cells in any part of the stomach grow and divide abnormally.
Because the early symptoms of stomach cancer are often similar to many other conditions, it is often at an advanced stage by the time it is diagnosed. Detecting and diagnosing cancer early allows for more treatment options.
What Causes Stomach Cancer?
The causes of stomach cancer are still being researched, but some experts believe that it starts when something injures lining of the stomach. This injury causes stomach cells to develop changes in their DNA which results in the rapid growth, eventually forming a tumour.
Some factors give you an inherently higher risk of developing stomach cancer. You are at a higher risk if you have a family history or a genetic predisposition for the condition. It is also more likley to occur if you are over the age of 60.
Some factors are under your control. An unhealthy diet that includes smoked, pickled or salted foods and a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, smoking tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption have all been linked to an increase in risk for stomach cancer.
Pre-existing conditions such as a helicobacter pylori bacterial infection, pernicious anaemia (low red blood cells), chronic inflammation of the stomach (gastritis) and a partial gastrectomy (usually as a treatment for stomach ulcers), have also been shown to increase your risk of developing stomach cancer.
What Are The Main Symptoms Of Stomach Cancer?
Early-stage stomach cancer seldom causes symptoms and often goes undetected, especially in countries where screening for stomach cancer is not routine. This means that stomach cancers are often advanced by the time they diagnosed.
Successful treatment is dependent on identifying the disease early. If you have a family history of stomach cancer and you experience any possible symptoms, it is very important to allert your doctor and share your concerns with them.
Early Symptoms Of Stomach Cancer
The most common early symptoms of stomach cancer include:
- Trapped wind and frequent burping
- Persistent heartburn or indigestion which occurs when you have an irritation in your stomach which causes acid relux
- Feeling full after eating small meals
- Blood in your stools, or black stools caused by cancer bleeding into your stomach
- Poor appetite
- Nausea which may be caused by a blockage in the stomach which stops food from passing through your digestive system
- Tiredness due to anaemia (low levels of red blood cells)
Advanced Symptoms Of Stomach Cancer
If the cancer grows and spreads outside the stomach, it may start causing more noticeable symptoms. These symptoms may include:
- Blood in your stools, or black stools which may be caused by either early or advanced stomach cancer bleeding into your stomach.
- Vomiting, with or without blood
- Unexplained and unintentional weight loss than may be attributed to a loss of appetite or feeling full after eating small amounts
- Abdominal pain which occurs either in the upper abdomen or behind your breastbone (sternum)
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), if the cancer spreads to the liver
- Swelling or fluid build-up in the abdomen
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia). You might experience pain or a burning sensation when swallowing, or food may frequently get stuck in your throat.
Most of these symptoms are usually caused by other ailments such as a viral infection or an ulcer although some of these symptoms may also be caused by other types of cancer.
Anyone who experiences persistent gastric symptoms should consult their doctor.
How Is Stomach Cancer Treated?
If you are diagnosed with stomach cancer, the treatment will depend on the stage of the cancer and your overall health. In general, your care team will use a combination of approaches that is tailored to your specific condition, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy and targetted therapy.
If the cancer is still in the early stages, the preferred approach is to surgically remove the tumor. Chemotherapy might be administered before the surgery to shrink the tumour, after the surgery to reduce the risk of recurrence or as a way to manage symptoms and slow the progression of advanced cancer.
Radiation therapy might also be used, before or after surgery or as a palliative treatment to relieve symptoms like pain or bleeding.
Targeted therapies are often used in advanced or metastatic cases and can be more precise in their action than traditional chemotherapy. Immunotherapy can also be used to specifically target the cancer.
If the cancer has progressed to an advanced stage and a cure is no longer possible, the focus shifts to palliative care. Palliative care focuses on relieving symptoms, improving the patient's quality of life, and providing emotional and psychological support.