Gastrointestinal (GI) cancers are common and treatable — here’s what you need to know

Cancers of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract are common and are treatable if caught early. Here’s what to know about risk, diagnosis and treatment.

Gastrointestinal (GI) cancer can develop anywhere along the digestive tract, which runs about 25 feet through the body from the mouth to the anus. Many GI cancers are easily treated if found early, which is why regular testing is important.

Types of gastrointestinal cancer

The types of GI cancer are different, based on where the cancer begins. Sometimes, colon and rectal cancers are known collectively as “colorectal cancer,” and the terms are used interchangeably. However, even though these cancers all appear in the gastrointestinal tract, they are different in many ways.

The signs of GI cancers vary, but blood in the stool or bleeding is a warning sign for all of these cancers. Any bleeding from the area needs to be investigated to determine the source.

Gastrointestinal cancer care

At Norton Cancer Institute, patients with gastrointestinal cancers see providers from multiple specialties in a single day, including medical oncology, radiation oncology and surgery. Multiple viewpoints and areas of expertise improve care for every patient.

“Bleeding can come from hemorrhoids, fissures or other tears in the skin near the anus,” said Michael F. Driscoll, M.D., gastrointestinal medical oncologist at Norton Cancer Institute. “If these symptoms resolve on their own, we don’t worry. But ongoing or worsening symptoms mean further investigation is needed.”

Risks for gastrointestinal cancer

Each type of GI cancer has its own risk factors, and some you can control. Risks may include:

  • Family history: If you have a family history of any GI cancer, your risk increases. Some cancers are associated with genetic mutations and can be passed through families.
  • Age: Most GI cancers can affect people of all ages, but typically develop after age 50. Colorectal cancer rates have been increasing in younger age groups, however, and the recommended age to begin screenings is 45.
  • Gender: People assigned male at birth are more likely to develop a gastrointestinal cancer than people assigned female.
  • Lifestyle: A low-fiber, high-fat diet, sedentary lifestyle, obesity, smoking and excess alcohol use all increase the risk of developing GI cancer.

Talk to your doctor if you have new or worsening symptoms, or if you have a family history of any gastrointestinal cancers.

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