Your stomach is one of the key components of your digestive system. It’s where much of the digestive process begins, as gastric juices and enzymes break down all the food and drink that you have consumed while absorbing all the essential vitamins and minerals that keep your body going.
A variety of diseases and disorders can interfere with that basic function, and one of the most significant is stomach cancer. Although stomach cancer was once one of the leading forms of cancer in the United States, it is now much lower on the list. Advanced gastric cancer accounts for about 1.5 percent of cancer-related deaths.
Still, that is not zero percent, and stomach cancer can be extremely destructive and even harder to detect early on. Understanding the risk factors can play an important role in early detection and cancer treatment. Learn more about stomach cancer risk factors below.
What is Stomach Cancer?
Cancer is a disease characterized by the unregulated growth of cells, resulting in masses of tissue known as tumors. Stomach cancer is a type of cancer originating within any of the cells in the stomach. Tumors in the stomach can interfere with regular digestive processes. Untreated tumors can continue to grow, potentially spreading into nearby organs and tissues or even reaching farther parts of the body.
The stomach is divided into five separate sections, and stomach cancer can potentially affect any of these sections. In most of the world, stomach cancer more commonly affects the main section of the stomach, simply known as the body. However, in the United States, stomach cancer is more commonly found in the gastroesophageal junction, which is the area where your esophagus meets your stomach. For that reason, these cancers are often treated as esophagus cancer.
The stomach comprises several different cells, all of which can potentially become cancerous. Most cases of stomach cancer are adenocarcinomas. These cancers affect the gland cells in the innermost lining of the stomach. About 90 to 95 percent of stomach cancer cases are adenocarcinomas, but other cancers include lymphomas, neuroendocrine tumors, and gastrointestinal stromal tumors.
Symptoms of Stomach Cancer
Stomach cancer symptoms vary, and part of what makes the disease so difficult to pinpoint is that it typically does not present any noticeable symptoms early on. Symptoms usually only show up when the tumor has grown larger or spread to other organs.
Signs and symptoms that do show up include:
- Lost appetite
- Feeling full after eating only a little
- Unintentional weight loss
- Abdominal pain
- Swelling in the abdomen coupled with weight loss
- Nausea or vomiting
- Heartburn and indigestion
- General fatigue
Singularly, and even together, these symptoms are easy to ignore. Most everyone has had a moment of nausea or indigestion. Many of these symptoms can also be rooted in other types of cancer or other non-cancerous disorders altogether. This is why trying to diagnose your condition based on symptoms alone can be highly misleading and inconclusive.
Who Is at Risk of Stomach Cancer?
Cancer is caused by a genetic mutation that leads to cancer cells growing out of control. The exact cause of that mutation is still not known or understood. However, research does know that certain factors can potentially increase your risk of stomach cancer. Some of these stomach cancer risk factors can be controlled, while others cannot.
Helicobacter pylori is a bacteria that can cause infections in the stomach and digestive system. H. pylori infections appear to be a major contributor to stomach cancer, particularly in the lower part of the stomach. Stomach cancer patients generally have a higher rate of infection with H. pylori. Long-term infections with this bacteria can lead to atrophic gastritis and other changes to the inner lining of the stomach that can potentially become cancerous. These infections have also been associated with forms of lymphoma in the stomach.
While no singular diet component will instantly lead to stomach cancer, some foods may increase your overall risk. Eating large amounts of food that are preserved through salt methods, like pickles and salted meats, may increase your risk. Part of what has reduced the rate of stomach cancer in the United States is the increase in refrigeration and other modern means of preserving food.
Meats that have been processed, grilled, or cooked with charcoal may also increase your risk factor of stomach cancer.
While it is often associated with liver problems, alcohol has also been linked to an increased risk of stomach cancer. This link is strongest among those who drink more than three drinks per day. The exact mechanisms are not known, though alcohol is known to be an irritant. Constant irritation in the stomach lining can contribute to inflammation and tissue damage.
Smoking is best known for its damage to the lungs, heart, and cardiovascular system, but it may also contribute to stomach cancer. Cigarettes contain a wide range of known carcinogens, which can easily enter your stomach. Smoking cigarettes is particularly linked to cancer in the upper section of the stomach, close to the esophagus. People who smoke are about two times more likely to have stomach cancer.
Some people have part of their stomachs removed to treat a variety of non-cancerous issues, like ulcers and benign growths. If you have undergone a partial gastrectomy, you may have an increased risk of developing stomach cancer.
The exact mechanisms are not known, but it may be because you are producing fewer stomach acids. Less stomach acid might make it easier for bacteria to infect the stomach lining. You may also experience more reflux of bile entering the stomach from the small intestine, which can contribute to irritation and damage.
Cells in the stomach lining produce a substance known as intrinsic factor, which helps to absorb vitamin B12. Some people may not produce enough intrinsic factors, leading to a vitamin B12 deficiency. Without enough vitamin B12, your body can have trouble making red blood cells. This is known as pernicious anemia, and it can lead to a wide range of health issues, including an increased risk of stomach cancer.
Stomach cancer can ostensibly happen to anyone at any age, but it is generally more common as you get older. Most people diagnosed with stomach cancer are at least in their 60s.
You may have an increased risk of cancer if members of your family have had stomach cancer. This particularly applies to first-degree relatives, like your parents, siblings, or children.
It’s important to note that some people may have more than one of the above risk factors and never develop stomach cancer. Some people diagnosed with stomach cancer may have none of the above risk factors.
However, risk factors can be important in understanding your potential for cancer. While cancer screening is not standard or routine in the United States, you may consider getting checked regularly if you do have an increased risk of stomach cancer.
Risk factors can also help you in terms of detecting or diagnosing stomach cancer. As mentioned, the symptoms can be hard to read on their own, but understanding your potential risk can contribute to you getting tested for stomach cancer sooner rather than later.
If you do have any of the above risk factors, consult your with Immunity Therapy Center to determine the best way to proceed with your ongoing health and for more information on how to treat stomach cancer.
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.