In November, we all become very aware of our stomachs. Whether it is what we’re going to put in it or how we’re going to maintain its size, most of us think about it several times throughout the month. But there are a few people thinking about their stomachs for different reasons and maybe even missing them. There are many benefits to taking time this month to be aware of the health of our stomachs beyond their fullness.
About Stomach Cancer
The stomach is responsible for holding food and starting the digestion process through secretion of gastric juices. It is located under the diaphragm and directly connects to the esophagus and small intestine. Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, is when cancerous cells form in the lining of the stomach. The stomach has five layers, and as cancer cells start to form, they start at the inner layer and move outward. The more layers containing cancer, the more advanced the stage and the worse the prognosis.
Detecting Stomach Cancer
Often, precancerous abnormalities appear in the stomach before they become cancer, but because these cause few symptoms, they can be difficult to detect. Stomach cancer tends to be slow moving and can take years to develop. However, because of its proximity to other vital organs in the body, once the cancer does develop, it can cause major problems as it spreads. Early detection becomes difficult for stomach cancer because of its slow-moving pace and its lack of obvious symptoms. For example, the common symptoms of poor appetite, nausea, heartburn, abdominal pain, and weight loss are most-commonly associated with other illnesses like virus or ulcer. The good news is that stomach cancer is uncommon in the U.S., so your best bet is to know the risk factors and determine with your doctor whether your risk is high enough to warrant ongoing monitoring or screening.
Like many cancers, there are lifestyle choices that increase a person’s risk of stomach cancer. Lack of exercise, diet, and obesity are all factors that play into cancer risk. In particular, a person who is sedentary and consumes large amounts of salt and red meat and few fruits and vegetables is at a much higher risk for obesity and for stomach cancer. Other lifestyle factors include tobacco and alcohol. Studies have shown that smoking increases the risk of gastric cancer by forty-four percent for both current smokers and ex-smokers. Risk from smoking greatly affects men—specifically, the increased risk for men is sixty percent while the increased risk for women is twenty percent. Unlike smoking, alcohol does not seem to be directly associated with stomach cancer, but alcohol in general is linked to the progression of all cancer and should be consumed only in moderation.
While lifestyle risks can be adjusted, there are some risk factors that are inherent. These include gender, age, and ethnicity. Men are more likely to get stomach cancer than women. Likewise, people over age fifty and certain ethnicities—African Americans, Native Americans, and Asians—have an increased risk of stomach cancer. Certain conditions such as H. pylori infection, anemia, and chronic stomach inflammation have shown strong links to stomach cancer as well. Lastly, genetics play a large role in a person’s risk for stomach cancer. If you have an immediate family member (father, mother, sister, or brother) who has or has had stomach cancer or Lynch Syndrome, which is a hereditary form of colon cancer, you have a higher risk of stomach cancer. In this case, your doctor may recommend genetic testing in addition to screening and lifestyle changes.
Life after Stomach Cancer
The reality is that most stomach cancers are not detected until more advanced stages when more-obvious symptoms start to show. For many, this reality results in the need for aggressive treatment including chemotherapy, radiation, immune-building treatment, and/or surgery. Most people diagnosed with stomach cancer will require some type of surgery. Whether minimally invasive or a traditional open surgery, the goal is to cure the disease and improve a patient’s quality of life. Traditional surgery may include removal of a portion or entire stomach, called a partial or total gastrectomy. For people with a total gastrectomy, the esophagus is attached directly to the small intestines or a small pouch is created using tissue from the small intestines in place of the stomach.
The biggest challenges for people post-gastrectomy are nutrition and weight management. It takes time to learn the new normal of eating healthy, smaller portions, and malabsorption can become a problem. When nutrients aren’t being properly absorbed, muscle mass and immune response can decrease. If you would like to better understand your risk of stomach cancer or its symptoms, talk to one of our doctors. At GI Associates, our doctors are board certified in gastroenterology and uniquely qualified to discuss, evaluate, and diagnose illnesses such as stomach cancer, and we have three locations to better serve you. Make an appointment with us today!