Stomach Cancer – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, develops in the tissues of the stomach. The stomach plays an important role in digesting food. After swallowing, food is held in the stomach while gastric juices break it down. The stomach’s muscular walls also contract to further break down food before it moves to the small intestine for continued digestion.

Stomach cancer arises from malignant changes to the mucosal lining of the stomach. This inner lining secretes acids and enzymes for digestion but also has to protect itself from these corrosive secretions. Alterations to the mucosal cells can lead to uncontrolled growth and the formation of cancerous tumors.

Stomach cancer is more common in men over the age of 40 but can affect anyone. Around 12,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with stomach cancer every year. Early diagnosis and treatment greatly improves outcomes.

What Causes Stomach Cancer?

The exact causes of stomach cancer are unknown but several risk factors have been identified:

  • Helicobacter pylori infection – This bacterium is the main cause of stomach ulcers and gastritis. The chronic inflammation it triggers is a major risk for the development of stomach cancer.
  • Diet – Eating large amounts of smoked, salted and pickled foods appears to increase stomach cancer risk.
  • Tobacco – Smoking tobacco significantly raises the risk of stomach cancer.
  • Alcohol – Heavy alcohol consumption is linked to an increased risk of stomach cancer.
  • Family history – Individuals with a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, child) diagnosed with stomach cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease.

Recognising Symptoms of Stomach Cancer

Common symptoms of stomach cancer include:

  • Abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Feeling bloated after eating
  • Loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss
  • Indigestion that does not go away
  • Nausea and vomiting, sometimes with traces of blood
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Diarrhea or constipation

Unfortunately, these vague symptoms overlap with many minor gastrointestinal problems. Most people presenting with such symptoms do not have cancer. However, persistent, unexplained symptoms should always be evaluated by a doctor.

How is Stomach Cancer Diagnosed?

If stomach cancer is suspected, your GP will refer you to a hospital specialist for further testing such as:

  • Gastroscopy – A thin, flexible tube with a camera is passed down the throat to examine the stomach lining. Suspicious areas can be biopsied for analysis.
  • Barium meal – You swallow a chalky liquid called barium which coats the stomach. X-rays are then taken to highlight any abnormalities.
  • CT scan – Detailed cross-sectional images of the abdomen can detect tumors.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound – A probe with a camera is passed down the throat into the stomach. Sound waves produce detailed images of the stomach wall layers.
  • Biopsy – Removing tissue samples for examination under a microscope can confirm the presence of cancerous cells.

How is Stomach Cancer Treated?

Treatment depends on the stage of cancer but can include:

  • Surgery – Removing part or all of the stomach along with nearby lymph nodes. Laparoscopic techniques allow surgery through smaller incisions.
  • Chemotherapy – Drug cocktails are used to eliminate cancer cells. This may be given before surgery to reduce tumors in size or after surgery to prevent recurrence.
  • Radiation Therapy – High energy radiation beams are directed at cancerous areas to destroy tumor cells.
  • Immunotherapy – Medications boost the immune system to better target cancer cells.
  • Targeted Drug Therapy – Newer medications specifically act on molecular changes in cancerous cells.

Surgery offers the best chance for a cure if the cancer is detected early before spreading to other organs. Radiation or chemotherapy may be recommended after surgery to lower the risk of cancer returning.

Detecting Stomach Cancer Early is Key

Screening for Stomach Cancer

There are currently no national screening programs for stomach cancer. This is partly because the disease is relatively uncommon in the UK. However, screening high-risk individuals could help detect cancer at an early stage when treatment is more effective. Doctors may recommend screening for people with:

  • Blood relatives diagnosed with stomach cancer
  • Chronic H. pylori infection
  • Pre-cancerous stomach lesions such as atrophic gastritis
  • Previous stomach surgery

Screening options include:

  • Endoscopy – Every 2-3 years, a gastroscopy exam of the stomach can spot suspicious changes.
  • Barium X-ray – Swallowing barium highlights stomach abnormalities on X-rays.
  • Stomach Ultrasound – Sound waves produce detailed images that may reveal tumors.

Screening has risks so benefits should outweigh potential harms for the individual. Talk to your doctor about whether screening is advisable based on your personal or family history.

Outlook and Survival Rates

Outcomes for stomach cancer depend heavily on how early it is diagnosed:

  • Stage 1A – 5 year survival rate around 90%
  • Stage 2A – 5 year survival around 60%
  • Stage 3A – 5 year survival around 30%
  • Stage 4 – 5 year survival less than 10%

Unfortunately stomach cancer is often at an advanced stage when diagnosed because early symptoms are non-specific. Spreading to lymph nodes, peritoneum and other organs greatly reduces prognosis.

However, survival is improving with newer treatments and better integration of therapies. Increased awareness and prompt diagnosis remain vital – early detection saves lives.

Support and Coping with Stomach Cancer

Receiving a stomach cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming. Adjusting to treatment side effects while processing emotional upheaval requires courage. Support services can assist:

Macmillan Cancer Support provides information, practical assistance, financial guidance and telephone helplines. Their specialist nurses deliver individualized care.

Maggie’s Centres have drop-in locations across the UK offering free psychological support plus benefits advice. The relaxed, caring environment helps people regain control.

Cancer Research UK runs a cancer chat service connecting people for mutual support. Their website has trusted resources on treatment, nutrition and coping.

Online forums allow connecting with others in similar circumstances for insight. But beware unmoderated platforms which may spread misinformation.

Counselling, peer support groups and relaxation techniques help many cope with their diagnosis. Discuss your needs with your care team – support is available.

Research and Clinical Trials

As a relatively uncommon cancer, research specific to stomach cancer is limited. But advances in cancer biology and genetics are still very relevant.

Clinical trials are investigating newer treatments like:

  • Targeted therapies that block genetic mutations driving cancer growth
  • Immunotherapies that help the immune system recognise and destroy cancer cells
  • More tailored use of existing chemotherapy drugs in combination

Ask your medical team if you may be eligible for a clinical trial. Participation provides access to promising new treatments and helps progress medical knowledge.

Significant progress is being made – commitment to research ensures a positive outlook for those diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Photo “Stomach Pain” by Anthony Cunningham for Zoom Health

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