Recognizing the first sign of stomach cancer is important because many cases are often undiagnosed until in advanced stages. Stomach (gastric) cancer occurs when malignant cancer cells begin in the lining of the stomach. Over 25,000 cases are diagnosed in the United States each year. However, cancer of the stomach is more common in other countries and is the fourth most common cancer type worldwide with roughly 1 million cases per year. The large disparity in cases can be attributed to the diets and water quality of different countries. For example, Asia has the highest incidence rate due to infections from Helicobacter pylori, a type of bacteria that comes from a lack of clean water and good sewage systems. Higher case rates are also believed to stem from increased consumption of smoked and salted foods.
Due to the lower incidence in the United States, stomach cancer is not routinely screened for like other cancer types. This has led to many cases of gastric cancer developing undetected for several years and not being diagnosed until the tumor has grown and spread to tissues surrounding the stomach. Poor prognosis can stem from a delayed diagnosis because earlier detection increases the likelihood of successful treatment. Therefore, once symptoms or signs are experienced, it is important to see your doctor right away.
Signs of Stomach Cancer
Similar to other cancer types, gastric cancer symptoms and signs can vary for each patient. Most signs and symptoms are not experienced in early stages, but some patients may experience a combination of the following:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain and discomfort
- Feeling full when eating small amounts
Symptoms are not typically experienced until the tumor has grown and spread. These symptoms will often include the following:
- Blood in stool or vomit
- Persistent fatigue from anemia
- Unexpected weight loss
- Difficulty swallowing
Once the cancer grows and spreads beyond the stomach, other symptoms and complications can begin occurring. Specifically, If the cancer has spread to the liver, jaundice, which is the yellowing of the skin and eyes often occurs.
Diagnosing Stomach Cancer
The type of stomach cancer can also influence how early symptoms are experienced for patients. Most gastric cancers are adenocarcinomas and divided into two groups. Intestinal stomach cancer has a slightly better prognosis and gene changes that make patients eligible for targeted therapies. Diffuse stomach cancer is less common and grows more quickly than intestinal stomach cancer. These types of tumors are more likely to have early-stage symptoms but are more difficult to treat.
For those suspected to have stomach cancer or are experiencing the relevant symptoms, testing will be performed to confirm the diagnosis. Upper Endoscopy is the most used test for gastric cancer. The doctor puts a thin tube with a camera down your throat to see the inner lining of the stomach, esophagus, and small intestine. If abnormal areas are seen, a sample is collected and sent to a lab for a biopsy. Other testing methods that can be used for the diagnosing and staging of stomach cancer include:
- CT scan
- PET scan
- Endoscopic Ultrasound