Stomach cancer signs and symptoms everyone should know

Death of country music singer and songwriter Toby Keith spotlights stomach cancer.

Country music singer and songwriter Toby Keith died Feb. 5 after a two-year battle with stomach cancer. The music superstar’s death at just 62 years old left many asking what is stomach cancer, how can it be prevented and what are the treatment options.

“Stomach cancer, often referred to as gastric cancer, is predominantly an adenocarcinoma, meaning it starts in cells that produce mucus,” said Michael F. Driscoll, M.D., gastrointestinal medical oncologist, with Norton Cancer Institute. “While gastric cancer isn’t as common as other types of gastro-related cancers like esophageal cancer, stomach cancer does account for about 1.5% of new cancer cases each year and is the fifth most common cancer worldwide. Many of the warning signs and symptoms associated with gastro-related cancer are the same and should be taken seriously.”

Norton Cancer Institute

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Risks and diagnosis

Risk factors of gastric cancer can include:

  • Gender (more common in men)
  • Age (most people are in their 60s or older)
  • Ethnicity (risks higher for Hispanics, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders)
  • Geography (less common in North America)
  • Overweight or obese
  • Diet
  • Alcohol and/or tobacco use
  • Previous stomach surgery
  • Precancerous stomach conditions
  • Family history

Dr. Driscoll warns that symptoms can include epigastric abdominal pain (or discomfort) that is high up under the rib cage; weight loss, often from a lower calorie intake because people feel food is getting “stuck” and tend to eat less or have a very full sensation; and experiencing blood loss through bowel movements that show dark, tar color in the stool. 

Unfortunately with gastric cancer there is no preventive or routine screening. However, for someone with a known family history of gastric cancer or someone who has some risk factors, diagnostic testing can be done. In most cases, providers will use an upper endoscopy to examine the stomach, allowing them to see the inner lining of the esophagus, stomach and first part of the small intestine. If something suspicious is found, a tissue biopsy can be collected at the time and tested. Providers also may use CT scan imaging to spot suspicious areas, see if the cancer has spread and to determine if treatment is effective.

Treatment and survival

Most treatment options typically begin with surgically removing the cancerous area. Then treatment options such as chemotherapy and radiation can be considered. The five-year survival rate of localized stomach cancer is about 70% to 75%; that decreases to less than 10% if the cancer has spread and is diagnosed in late stage.

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