More Common Than You Think: The Symptoms of Gastric Cancer

For some, fluctuating weight is a normal occurrence. Gas following certain foods is a common bother to many, and heartburn can be a constant battle. While separately these symptoms may not represent much more than a well-cooked holiday meal, understanding what they might mean when they add up could be an important conversation to bring to your doctor, as these are some of the symptoms of gastric cancer.

“Gastric cancer often presents with non-specific symptoms that can occur due to benign conditions,” explains David Draper, MD, a medical oncologist with the TriHealth Cancer Institute.  “Although these symptoms might not usually be reason for alarm, individuals who them over a prolonged period (usually weeks) without resolution should consult with their physician.”

Some of the most common symptoms of stomach cancer are:

  • Upper abdominal pain

  • Unexplained weight loss, at times ongoing

  • Any type of dark, tarry stool, or a bloody stool

  • Vomiting, with blood

  • Pain after eating

Risk Factors of Gastric Cancer

Understanding the risk factors and symptoms of stomach cancer is critical - symptoms are not as frequent in the early stages, making it difficult to catch.

“We are aware of several factors that increase the risk of gastric cancer,” Dr. Draper says. “Some of these, such as genetics and certain bacterial infections, are typically not under our control.  There are, however, modifiable risk factors, such as obesity, tobacco use and diet that can be controlled.  Data suggests that a diet in fresh fruits and vegetables, and avoidance of processed meats, such as lunch meat and hot dogs, may help reduce the risk of developing gastric cancer.”

Some of the specific risk factors for stomach cancer include:

  • H. pylori bacteria: An infection from these bacteria, which live in the digestive tract, is the same that often causes the sores or ulcers that many people develop.

  • Obesity: Having too much body fat, more than being categorized as overweight, one who is obese would have a body mass index (BMI) that is 30 or higher.

  • Smoking: Smokers have been shown to have double the risk of stomach cancer, with an increase in the likelihood of developing cancer in the upper part of the stomach, near the esophagus.

  • High nitrates or nitrites: Foods such as deli meats or processed meats (where processed means salted, cured or preserved, with or without smoking) often specifically have a high presence of nitrates and nitrites, which studies have found to be carcinogenic to humans.

While there is no exact reason why stomach lining cells become cancerous, the above risk factors should be considered, especially if experiencing some of the more common symptoms.

If you fall into any of these risk factors and find yourself experiencing these symptoms, a conversation with your doctor could be the first step to feeling well once more. While what you’re experiencing may, in fact, be caused by other factors, testing for stomach cancer when necessary will be individualized to your needs and may include an upper endoscopy performed by a gastroenterologist or imaging such as a CT scan.

A Team Approach to Treatment of Gastric Cancer

According to Dr. Draper, a multidisciplinary, team-focused approach is important when making decisions on the best treatment for you.

“Gastric cancer is a very treatable and often curable disease,” adds Dr. Draper. “It takes the coordinated effort of a multitude of subspecialists including medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, surgical oncologists and nutritionists.  At the TriHealth Cancer Institute, we prospectively review patients with gastric cancer in a conference along with pathologists, radiologists, geneticists and interventional gastroenterologists.  We see the patient in our multidisciplinary clinic, where the patient meets the team that will be involved in their care.  Data has consistently shown that this method provides superior long-term outcomes.”

Tags Cancer , Prevention and Early Detection