Most people refer to their general abdominal region as their stomach, but the actual stomach organ plays the all-important role of digesting food. It’s where much of the digestive breakdown occurs as your stomach secretes gastric juices and absorbs all the nutrients from the food that you have consumed.
Stomach cancer was once the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, but it has since dropped significantly. Today, stomach cancers make up about 1.5 percent of new cancer diagnoses in the country. Still, treating cancer of any kind starts with detecting it as early as possible. Learn more about how to detect stomach cancer below.
What is Stomach Cancer?
Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, refers to the abnormal growth of cells originating in the stomach. The stomach itself comprises a large sac that is broken up into five different sections. In most parts of the world, stomach cancer affects the main part of the stomach, known as the stomach body. However, in the United States, stomach cancer most often affects the area where your esophagus meets your stomach, an area known as the gastroesophageal junction. These are sometimes treated the same as esophageal cancer.
Along with the specific part of the stomach affected, GI cancer can occur in different cells within the stomach. The vast majority of stomach cancer cases (about 90 to 95 percent) are adenocarcinomas. This form of gastrointestinal cancer starts in the cells making up the innermost lining of the stomach and appears in two forms: intestinal and diffuse.
In most cases, if you are diagnosed with gastric cancer, it is likely an adenocarcinoma. However, other types of stomach cancer include neuroendocrine tumors, gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs), and lymphomas.
What Are the Early Signs of Stomach Cancer?
The location of the cancer in your stomach will determine the symptoms, as well as the method of your advanced stomach cancer treatment. The main problem is that stomach cancer rarely presents with symptoms in its early stages. In the United States, where screening for cancer is not standard, advanced stomach cancer typically is not detected until the stomach tumor has grown large or spread to other organs or areas outside the stomach.
Some of the common early symptoms of stomach cancer that do show up include:
- Lost appetite
- Unintended weight loss
- Feeling bloated after eating
- Feeling full after small amounts of food
- Abdominal pain
- Vague discomfort in the abdomen, typically just above the belly button
- Nausea and/or vomiting (sometimes with blood)
- Heartburn and indigestion
- Swelling in the abdomen (fluid buildup)
- General fatigue (a result of anemia)
If the cancer spreads to the nearby liver, you may also experience symptoms of jaundice, which involves yellowing in the skin and eyes.
As you can imagine, many of these symptoms can come from other health issues, like viral infections, ulcers, or simply food poisoning. Many of these symptoms can be caused by other types of cancer. Some of the symptoms, like indigestion, might even feel completely negligible.
Can Stomach Cancer Be Detected Early?
Screening is the process of testing for a disease in someone without symptoms. In the United States, there is no standard screening procedure for stomach cancer. Screening procedures are more common in East Asia and South America, where stomach cancer tends to be more prevalent. This typically includes an upper endoscopy.
Regular screening may be recommended for those who are at a higher risk factor of stomach cancer. This can help to detect cancer at its earlier stages, which is when the cancer is possibly easier to cure.
However, screening for those with an average risk of stomach cancer typically is not recommended. Much of this is because of how uncommon the disease is in the United States. The benefits generally do not outweigh the disadvantages, like the extra costs for other tests and procedures.
Outside of screening, the most important thing you can do is to talk to your doctor if you experience any of the above listed symptoms for a long period. Symptoms that seem to last for weeks without going away can point to an underlying health issue in a patient. Even if you do not end up having stomach cancer, seeing your doctor can provide peace of mind while ensuring that you get treatment for whatever is actually ailing you.
Diagnosing Stomach Cancer
If you display some of the common signs and symptoms of stomach cancer, your doctor will perform various tests and exams to determine if it truly is stomach cancer. If they do find cancer, your doctor will likely order more tests to learn more about the cancer’s severity and its potential spread.
The most common test for stomach cancer, an upper endoscopy, involves looking at your stomach through a thin, flexible tube called an endoscope. The endoscope features a camera at its tip. This is inserted down your throat (usually while you are under sedation).
With the endoscope, your doctor can see the inside of your esophagus, stomach, and beginning section of the small intestine. If your doctor does notice any abnormal tissue or growths, they can take samples for testing through the endoscope. If the growths are small enough, the doctor can actually remove them entirely with the endoscope. An upper endoscopy may also be used to relieve complications caused by stomach cancer diagnosis.
However, upper endoscopies can potentially miss some types of stomach cancer. In these cases, your doctor may use other imaging tests on a patient.
If an upper endoscopy does not show anything conclusive, your doctor may use a wide range of other imaging tests. This can include traditional imaging tests, like x-rays, CT scans, and PET scans, along with endoscopic ultrasound.
An endoscopic ultrasound allows a doctor to detect cancer that is deeper in the stomach tissue and evaluate how far cancer may have spread. The process is similar to an upper endoscopy, but this time, the doctor places a small ultrasound probe at the tip of the endoscope. In the stomach, the ultrasound is placed against the stomach wall. Using sound waves, the ultrasound can essentially create an image of the layers of the stomach wall.
During an endoscopy, your doctor may notice an abnormal growth or tissue. A biopsy involves taking a piece of that tissue and sending it to a lab for further testing. Your doctor can also take biopsies from areas nearby where the cancer may have spread, like the lymph nodes.
For cancers that appear in deeper stomach tissues, your doctor will likely use an endoscopic ultrasound to guide a thin, hollow needle into the stomach wall. Using the needle, the doctor can collect the biopsy sample.
A stomach cancer diagnosis can be treated, though the exact treatment depends on the location of the cancer and its extent or severity. Treatments available include surgery to remove the tumor, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and targeted drug therapy.
The success of how to treat stomach cancer depends on a lot of things, but as with most cancers, the prognosis is better when the cancer is caught at an earlier stage. If you display any of the symptoms or otherwise feel unwell, reach out to Immunity Therapy Center for more information. It may not be stomach cancer, but it is worth knowing for certain.
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.