Stomach cancer (also called gastric cancer) is the growth of cancer cells in the lining and wall of the stomach.  These two terms most often refer to stomach cancer that begins in the mucus-producing cells on the inside

Early Gastric Cancer

lining of the stomach (adenocarcinoma).  Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of stomach cancer.  For information purposes, it might be helpful to know that the body is made up of many types of cells.  Normally, cells grow, divide and then die.  Sometimes, cells change and begin to grow and divide more quickly than normal cells.  Rather than dying, these abnormal cells clump together to form tumors.  If these tumors are malignant (cancerous), they can invade and kill your body’s healthy tissues.  From these tumors, cancer cells can spread (metastasize) and form new tumors in other parts of the body.  By contrast, noncancerous tumors (also called benign tumors) do not spread to other parts of the body.

Factors that increase your risk of stomach cancer include a diet high in salty and smoked foods, a diet low in fruits and vegetables, eating foods contaminated with aflatoxin fungus, infection with Helicobacter pylori, long-term stomach inflammation (chronic gastritis), pernicious anemia, smoking and stomach polyps.  Further, you are more likely to get stomach cancer if you are a man, are older than 50 years of age, have a close relative who has had stomach cancer, abuse alcohol and if you are an African American, Hispanic American, Asian American or Pacific Islander.  Research has found that stomach cancer is uncommon in the United States, and the number of people diagnosed with the disease each year is declining.  The disease is much more common in other areas of the world, particularly Japan.

Sometimes cancer can grow in the stomach for a long time before it causes symptoms.  Many times this type of cancer will not have any symptoms at all in the beginning, or the early stage symptoms can be very vague.  To ensure a proper diagnosis, further testing and evaluation is mandatory for this particular illness.  However, some patients do complain about nausea, heartburn, fatigue, indigestion and loss of appetite in the initial stages of the cancer.  When the tumor grows, it is not unusual to have a bloated feeling after eating or bloody stools, or even black, tarry stools.   More serious symptoms include vomiting after eating and a large amount of weight loss.  However, some of these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than cancer, so it is imperative to seek medical attention.  If it is stomach cancer and it is found early, the better the chances are that it can be treated effectively.

If your doctor suspects that you might have stomach cancer, he or she will look at your medical history and do a complete physical exam.  Most likely, the physician will order an endoscopy to try to see the tumor.  For this exam, a thin, lighted tube is put into your mouth and passed down to your stomach.  You might be given some medicine before the test to make you more comfortable.  During an endoscopy, it is normal to remove a small piece of your stomach to check it for cancer cells.  This is called a biopsy sample.  The sample is then sent to a lab where it is looked at under a microscope to determine if it is cancerous.  If the diagnosis is confirmed, the most common treatments for stomach cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination of these treatments. The choice of treatment depends on whether the cancer is just in the stomach or if it has spread to other places in the body.  A person’s age and overall health will also affect the choice of treatment.

Overall survival statistics can’t tell you exactly what will happen in your particular case. The overall 5 year survival statistics for stomach cancer are about 20%.  That means that approximately 1 in 5 of all the people diagnosed with stomach cancer is still alive 5 years later.  But that figure hides the fact that many people have advanced stomach cancer when they are diagnosed.  If the cancer is localized, with no cancer in the lymph nodes, then over 80% of people live for at least five years and two thirds of these will be cured.  The statistics do not tell you what treatment those people had, or how their cancer responded to that treatment, so it is hard to apply statistics to individual patients.  The actual survival rate will depend on the exact type of stomach cancer, the stage of the cancer and the grade of the cancer.

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    • Stephanie Jewett, RN
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