04 Apr ABC Guide to stomach cancer: what you need to know
In this article, we are going to tell explain what stomach cancer is, its symptoms, diagnosis treatments and alternatives to combat it.
What is stomach cancer?
Just like the esophagus and the intestine, the stomach is part of the digestive system. It is like a bag, that receives and contains food and digests it by secreting gastric juices. Its function is to transform food so that our bodies can extract the nutrients from it.
Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, develops when the cells in one of the stomach layers start to multiply uncontrollably. This should not be confused with other cancers that can form in the abdomen, like colon cancer, liver cancer or pancreatic cancer.
Maybe you’re here because you´re wondering, how do I know if I have stomach cancer? Well, stomach cancer is usually not detected in the early stages, since it has no specific symptoms. There may be some symptoms, such as those listed below, but these can be rather ambiguous and may be caused by other conditions such as viruses or stomach ulcers:
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Loss of appetite
- Indigestion or stomach acid
- Pain or discomfort in the abdomen
- Nausea and vomiting, especially vomiting solid foods after eating
- Bloating after eating
- Feeling that food gets stuck in the throat when eating
In the advanced stages of stomach cancer, symptoms may include:
- Weakness and fatigue
- Vomiting blood or blood in fecal matter
- Unexplained weight loss
- Change in intestinal rhythm
If you think you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. Describe your symptoms, including how often you get them and for how long in order to obtain a proper diagnosis.
What causes stomach cancer?
The actual cause is still unknown, since in each case, the patient has a different medical history. However, listed below are a number of known risk factors that can significantly increase your chances of suffering from stomach cancer.
Risk factors are those that increase the possibility of someone developing cancer. Although they often influence the development of cancer, we cannot and should not claim that these factors directly cause cancer.
Below are some of the factors the increase your risk of developing skin cancer:
- Genetic background/ family members with gastric cancer.
- Age: more frequent in persons above the age of 55.
- Gender: more common in men than women.
- Gastric infection caused by Helicobacter pylori.
- Having certain illnesses like gastric lymphoma
- Having previously had stomach surgery.
- Diet lacking in fruit and vegetables.
- Diet rich in salty, smoked or packaged foods.
There is no 100% effective way to prevent stomach cancer, but there are certain measures you can take to significantly reduce your risk. Most importantly, you should avoid risk factors, as in; avoid tobacco, eat a balanced diet and getting suitable treatment for infections such as Helicobacter pylori. In addition, physical activity can also help reduce your risk.
Diagnosis and exams
To diagnose stomach cancer, the following factors should be considered:
- Patient’s medical history
- Family medical history
- Family medical history
- Endoscopic examination
Medical exams are carried out to determine whether the tumor is:
Endoscopy: carried out by putting the endoscope (a flexible tube with a camera on the end) down the throat, to examine the inside of the esophagus, the stomach and the initial part of the small intestine. It is also possible to carry out an echo endoscopy that allows you to take samples of the tissue for subsequent analysis.
Biopsy: consists of removing a small amount of tissue for subsequent analysis in a specialized laboratory to give a definitive diagnosis.
Endoscopic ultrasound: similar to an endoscopy, but in this case the gastroscope has a small ultrasound prove. Sound waves form an image of the stomach, which helps determine the extent of the cancer.
Radiography: using a small amount of radiation, an image is created showing the internal structures of the body.
Computerized tomography, CT or CAT scan: uses x rays from different angles to create a detailed three-dimensional image of the inside of the body to determine the presence of any anomalies or tumors.
Magnetic resonance imaging, MRI scan: instead of x rays, it uses magnetic waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the body. Prior to the exam, a special dye is administered that allows for a clearer image of the inside.
Positron emission tomography, PET scan: consists of injecting a radioactive sugar substance that is absorbed by cells that are using a high amount of energy (cancerous cells). This study is also called a PET/CT scan because it is combined with a computerized tomography scan, which generates images and allows for the identification of places where this activity is taking place.
Laparoscopy: a minor surgery that consists of inserting a laparoscope (a thin, flexible, illuminated tube) that allows you to see the abdominal cavity. It is used to see if the cancer has spread to other tissues or to the liver.
Types of stomach cancer
This is the most common type of stomach cancer, which originates in the cells that form the innermost layer of the stomach (the muscosa).
These are cancerous tumors in the immune system that are sometimes detected in the stomach lining.
Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST)
These are more rare, and originate in the early stages of cells in early forms of cells in the stomach lining (interstitial cells of Cajal). Although gastrointestinal stromal tumors can be found anywhere in the digestive system, they are mostly found in the stomach.
Come from hormone producing cells in the stomach. Usually, these tumors do not spread to other organs.
Other types of stomach cancer
There are other, less common types of cancer such as; squamous cell carcinoma, small cell carcinoma and leiomyosarcoma, which can all originate in the stomach.
Stomach cancer studies
Every type of cancer can be classified into various stages, depending on where it is located, whether if has invaded nearby structures or if it has metastasized to other distant organs.
The most common staging system for stomach cancer is the TNM system, which defines:
T: size of the tumor
N: the number of nearby lymph nodes that have cancer
M: whether it has metastasized to other areas of the body
Each one of these is evaluated on a scale of 0 to IV according to the degree of severity.
The TNM stage is fundamental for deciding the most suitable treatment according to each individual case.
The type of treatment depends on the TNM stage, but also depends on other factors such as age, the patient’s health and their medical history. Below, we outline the most common treatments.
This treatments consists of the removal of of the tumor and the surrounding tissue. In some cases, depending on the stage of the stomach cancer, the regional lymph nodes are removed. If the surgery is limited to removing the affected part of the stomach, it is called a partial gastrectomy, but if the entire stomach has to be removed (including the lymph nodes, part of the esophagus, small intestine and surrounding tissue) it is called a complete gastrectomy.
This type of therapy uses drugs that are administered through the bloodstream with the purpose of destroying the cancerous cells. The aim of chemotherapy may be to slow the growth of the tumor or slow the onset of related symptoms, but more generally, it is used after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells and is combined with radiotherapy.
Consists of the use of X rays or other particles with the power to destroy cancer cells. Usually, external radiation is used for stomach cancer, which requires using a machine to reduce the size of the tumor or later on to destroy the remaining tumor.
Chemoradiation combines chemotherapy and radiotherapy, allowing both to have an effect on the body. It is used as an adjuvant therapy following surgery to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.
This is a type of therapy that utilizes certain medications to directly target the genes, the specific cancer proteins, or the conditions of the tissue that contribute to the growth and survival of the cancer cells. This therapy is different because it focuses specifically on the cancer cells, without damaging normal cells.
Also known as biological therapy, this consists of the stimulation of the body’s natural defenses, in order to combat cancer. Directs or restores the patient’s immune function.
These therapies go hand in hand with conventional treatments.
Maintaining healthy habits is essential for controlling any disease. With a bit of willpower and a lot of consistency, you can significantly improve your general wellbeing and feel stronger in your fight against stomach cancer.
Try to maintain a balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables and low in salt. This will help you feel better, inside and out.
Physical activity is recommended for the general wellbeing, and even more so when you are facing cancer. Exercising will improve blood flow and make your metabolism work more efficiently.
Ginseng is a medicinal plant that offers a range of health benefits, due to the fact that it contains substances called ginsenoside, which have stimulating properties that help to revitalize the body.
Its high concentration of antioxidants help to prevent the spread of carcinogenic cells. In some cases, this tea can cause the automatic death of this type of cells.
Cannabinoids reduce general discomfort, helping to ease nausea and vomiting, stimulate appetite and relieve the pain caused by some chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Together with conventional treatments, cannabinoids can encourage the death of tumoral cells, reducing their potential to spread and metastasize.
*Always check to see if it is legal in your jurisdiction before obtaining any cannabis-based product.
Coping and support strategies
If you have been diagnosed with stomach cancer, or you know someone that has, we have put together some alternatives to help you cope with this news. We know that a cancer diagnosis can be a huge emotional challenge. Every person has a different way of coping with this situation, but if you haven’t yet found what works best for you, you may want to try one of these options.
Getting to know you and your cancer
The more informed you are about cancer, the easier it will be to make decisions related to treatment. You will not be scared or embarrassed to ask your doctor, look to reliable sources for information. If you want to know a bit more about cancer, you can read our full article here.
It is also recommended to take some time for yourself. Focus on yourself, on our body, learn to understand yourself, having some self awareness may help you face cancer.
Surround yourself with friends and family
Talking to someone close to you, who understands you and can give you support is always so important. If you have a close relationship with someone, you can face your cancer knowing that you are supported, which makes a huge difference. Your wellbeing starts with how you feel.
Look for someone to talk to
Find someone who is ready to listen to you and talk to you about your hopes and fears. If you prefer, you can also talk to a therapist, doctor or someone from a support group. It feels good to express your doubts or thoughts, to feel heard and to not keep your fears to yourself.
Want to know more about cancer and how to fight it? We are here to support and guide you.