Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team
What is stomach cancer?
Stomach cancer, sometimes called gastric cancer, is a slowly progressing cancer that arises from the stomach. Symptoms of stomach cancer are abdominal fullness, dark stools, nausea, vomiting, and unexplained weight loss, although many people will have no symptoms in the early stages. Men over the age 40, people who have an infection of the stomach by the Helicobacter pylori bacteria, or who have inflammation of the stomach over a long period of time tend to have a higher risk of getting stomach cancer. Stomach cancer is most commonly treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and, sometimes, radiotherapy. Stomach cancer is often diagnosed when it is already in an advanced stage, and this can be difficult to treat. People who are diagnosed early have a better chance of recovery.
Stomach cancer is an uncommon condition. Cancer occurs when a group of abnormal cells grows uncontrollably. These cells can destroy the normal, healthy cells around them, and can spread into other areas of the body. An important risk factor for the development of stomach cancer is infection with Helicobacter pylori (a bacteria). This bacteria can cause stomach ulcers which, over time, can develop into cancer. Smoking and excessive alcohol intake increase the risk for gastric cancer significantly. Some foods may increase the risk of this condition, and these include smoked foods, salt-rich foods, red meat and pickled vegetables when eaten in large amounts. Some causes of stomach cancers seem to run in families, so having a family member who has had stomach cancer may increase the risk of developing this condition.
People with stomach cancer often have no symptoms in the early stages of the condition. Some people experience abdominal pain, heartburn, a loss of appetite or a feeling of becoming quickly full when eating. As the condition progresses, people may feel weak and tired, and may develop abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, black stools and unexplained weight loss.
Diagnosis is usually made based on the symptoms, and by carrying out a physical examination and endoscopy, a process which involves inserting a camera through the mouth to look at the stomach. A sample of the stomach ulcer or growth (a biopsy) is taken to investigate for cancer. A CT scan (computed tomography scan) may be done to look at the size of the cancer and for any evidence of spread beyond the stomach.
Treatment of stomach cancer depends on the size of the cancer, the exact type of cancer and whether the cancer has spread beyond the stomach. These combination of these factors decides the stage of the cancer. Depending on the stage, stomach cancer can be treated by surgical removal of part of or the whole stomach, by radiotherapy or chemotherapy, or a combination of these therapies. The treating doctor can give the best advice as to treatment.
Stomach ulcers should be treated and followed up with an endoscopy. Giving up smoking and reducing alcohol intake may also help to reduce the risk of stomach cancer. Eating a diet low in meat, and with plenty of vegetables, unsaturated fats and whole grains (a Mediterranean diet) may reduce the risk of stomach cancer.
Other names for stomach cancer
- Gastric cancer
- Stomach carcinoma