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Stomach cancer

Key points

  • Stomach cancer most commonly affects men over the age of 55.
  • Most stomach cancers start in the cells of your stomach that produce mucus and stomach juices.
  • Symptoms of stomach cancer include indigestion and a loss of appetite.
  • Surgery is the main treatment for stomach cancer.
 

Stomach cancer (gastric cancer) is a lump (tumour) created by an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells that starts in your stomach.

About stomach cancer

Your stomach is a muscular bag in your abdomen (tummy) that digests the food you eat. The lining of your stomach produces a strong acid to help break down food.

Illustration showing the different parts of the digestive system

Stomach cancer develops within the lining of your stomach or stomach wall. If you don't get treatment for stomach cancer, it can spread through the lining of your stomach into neighbouring organs, such as your bowel. Sometimes the cancer can spread to other parts of your body through your blood or lymphatic system. Your lymphatic system is made up of tissues and organs that produce and store cells that fight infection and disease. The spread of cancer through the body is called metastasis.

In 2011, about 7,000 people were diagnosed with stomach cancer in the UK. It mostly affects people over 55 and is more common in men.

Types of stomach cancer

About nine in 10 stomach cancers are a type called adenocarcinoma. This starts in the lining of your stomach, in cells that produce stomach juices.

Other, rarer types of stomach cancer include:

  • lymphomas, where the cancer starts in your lymphatic system
  • gastrointestinal stromal tumours (GIST), where the cancer starts in connective tissue in your stomach wall
  • carcinoid tumours, where the cancer starts in your neuroendocrine system (which produces hormones)

Symptoms of stomach cancer

Symptoms of stomach cancer may include persistent:

  • indigestion
  • feeling of bloating
  • pain in your abdomen
  • loss of appetite
  • difficulty swallowing
  • weight loss

You may also get a swelling or lump in your stomach area.

If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP.

Other symptoms of stomach cancer may include:

  • feeling sick or vomiting – you may vomit blood
  • blood in your faeces (stools), which can look black

If you have these symptoms, contact your GP immediately.

Causes of stomach cancer

The exact reasons why you may develop stomach cancer aren't fully understood at present. However, you're more likely to develop it if you:

  • are over 55
  • are a man (men are twice as likely to develop stomach cancer as women)
  • get infected with the bacterium Helicobacter pylori
  • have acid reflux, also known as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD)
  • have pernicious anaemia – where your body doesn't absorb enough vitamin B12 from your diet
  • have a family history of the disease
  • smoke
  • drink too much alcohol
  • are overweight
  • eat too much salt or preserved foods, such as cured or pickled foods
  • don't eat many fruit and vegetables

Diagnosis of stomach cancer

Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history. Your GP may give you a blood test, which will assess your general health.

Your GP may refer you to a gastroenterologist. This is a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating conditions that affect the digestive system. You may then be recommended more tests, which may include the following.

  • Gastroscopy and biopsy. This is a procedure used to look inside your stomach. Your doctor will use a narrow, flexible, tube-like telescopic camera called an endoscope to do this. He or she may remove a small sample of tissue from your stomach during a gastroscopy, which is called a biopsy. This will be sent to a laboratory for testing to determine the type of cells and if these are benign (not cancerous) or cancerous.
  • Barium swallow and meal. In this test, you will be asked to swallow a liquid that contains barium (a substance which shows up on X-rays). X-ray images of your stomach then show any unusual growths more clearly.

If you're found to have stomach cancer, you may need to have other tests to find out how advanced it is. This process, known as staging, takes into account whether the cancer has spread and how big it is. You will usually be advised to have scans, such as an ultrasound, MRI or CT, to check your stomach, liver and lymphatic system.

Treatment of stomach cancer

Your treatment will depend on the type of stomach cancer you have and how far it has spread. Your doctor will discuss your treatment options with you.

Surgery

Surgery involves removing the affected tissue from your stomach and usually a small amount of the surrounding healthy tissue.

You may have a partial gastrectomy, which means that your surgeon will remove part of your stomach. Alternatively, you may have a total gastrectomy. This means your surgeon will remove all of your stomach. Your surgeon may also remove the lymph nodes around your stomach to check whether the cancer has spread to them.

It may be possible for you to have laparoscopic (keyhole) surgery rather than open surgery. This means your surgeon will make several smaller cuts in your abdomen instead of one larger one. Speak to your surgeon for more information.

You may need to have chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment to make sure all the cancer cells are destroyed.

Non-surgical treatment

Your doctor may advise you to have one of the following treatments, either as well as surgery, or on its own.

  • Chemotherapy. This uses medicines to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be given through a drip (a tube inserted into a vein in your arm or hand) directly into your bloodstream (intravenous chemotherapy). Alternatively you may be given tablets or capsules that you swallow.
  • Biological therapy. This uses a substance that stimulates your body to attack or control the growth of cancer cells. If your stomach cancer has spread, you may be offered a medicine called trastuzumab (Herceptin) alongside chemotherapy. It works by targeting cancer cells that have a particular protein on their surface. Trastuzumab isn’t suitable for everyone – ask your doctor if it's an option for you.
  • Radiotherapy. This uses radiation to destroy cancer cells and may be used alongside chemotherapy.

You may be asked to be part of a clinical trial of a new treatment. Ask your doctor for advice and further information.

Prevention of stomach cancer

If you make some changes to your lifestyle, it may reduce your risk of getting stomach cancer. For example:

  • eat a healthy diet with at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day
  • cut down on processed and pickled foods
  • reduce the amount of salt you eat
  • don't smoke
  • drink alcohol in moderation
  • maintain a healthy weight

Talk to your GP for further advice and information.


Produced by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, February 2014.

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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