Stomach cancer is a life threatening cancer because diagnosis is usually made when the cancer is in its advanced stage. Poor awareness about the condition and low index of suspicion among physicians when treating patients with gastrointestinal symptoms have been partly responsible for worst conditions. In this article, we will discuss on 8 clinical things you should know about stomach cancer.
1. What is stomach cancer?
Stomach cancer is a relatively common cancer and it is the third most common cancer causing death worldwide. This is due to the fact that most patients with stomach cancer are usually diagnosed very late with an advanced disease characterized by the spread of the cancer cells to organs like the lungs, small intestines, liver, bones and the brain. It is caused by an unexplained and uncontrolled growth of the cells of the stomach. Stomach cancer may be restricted to the stomach or it may spread to involve other vital organs in close proximity with the stomach.
2. Risk factors and causes of stomach cancer
Certain risk factors have been attributed to stomach cancer. These include: infection with Helicobacter pylori, untreated peptic ulcer disease, pernicious anemia, excessive cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption, family history of stomach cancer; diet especially smoked foods e.g. fish, highly salted meals and meals low in fibre and vegetables. This is a critical fact that all patients and doctors should know about stomach cancer.
3. What are the symptoms of stomach cancer?
Symptoms of stomach cancer include: anorexia, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, generalized body weakness, pallor, severe weight loss, mass felt around the upper part of the abdomen, passage of blood in stool and signs suggestive of spread of stomach cancer to other organs in the body. However, early symptoms of gastric cancer are unspecific hence prompt and adequate medical consultation should be sought for whenever you begin to experience any gastrointestinal symptoms.
4. How do doctors make a diagnosis of stomach cancer?
The diagnosis of stomach cancer starts with a detailed clinical history where the doctor will ask you series of questions. This is to establish the cause of your disease, the course and possible risk factors. Also, the clinical history is used in ascertaining the spread of stomach cancer; other organs involved in the disease process, co-morbid medical conditions like diabetes, hypertension kidney disease are also identified during the clinical history.
Next is a detailed clinical examination where the doctor will examine you using his eyes and hands. This confirms findings from the clinical history. Then, series of medical investigations will be requested by your physician. This includes, full blood count, endoscopy where a tube with a camera is passed into the stomach via the mouth. This gives a direct visual picture of the cancer and samples may be taken at the same time for histology which confirms the presence of a stomach cancer. Other investigation may include CT scan of the abdomen, barium meal using contrast and occult fecal blood test.
5. Is stomach cancer treatable?
Yes, cancer is treatable if the diagnosis is made early. However, most cases of stomach cancer are usually diagnosed in its advanced stage especially in developing countries with poor healthcare seeking behavior and inability to access quality health care. Treatment generally depends on the stage of the disease, availability of medical facilities and personnel, presence of other medical conditions. Surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy are the main stream of treatment of stomach cancer.
These treatment modalities are usually used in combination for effectiveness. Surgery involves the removal or part of the stomach that is affected by the cancer. The remaining portion may be used to create a new but smaller stomach or the esophagus can be joined directly to the small intestine. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy involves the use or external beam of radiation and cytotoxic drugs respectively to kill the cancer cells.
6. Can someone inherit stomach cancer?
It is generally true that cancers are caused by mutations in certain genes which cause an uncontrolled growth of body cells. It is important to note that these genes can be inherited from parents or passed through a lineage line. This is significant in people with a family history of Lynch syndrome or with first degree relatives diagnosed with cancer of the stomach.
7. Can stomach cancer be prevented?
With the advancement in medicine, screening tests have been developed for patients who are high risk candidates for stomach cancer. One of such test is Genetic testing where blood sample is collected from the patient and it’s analyzed for any genetic mutations necessary for the occurrence of stomach cancer.
However, not much can be done to prevent the occurrence of stomach cancer but risk factors can be identified and tackled to reduce the risk of developing stomach cancer.
Whenever you experience burning chest pain, it is recommended that you visit your doctor who is going to access you for peptic ulcer disease and exclude chronic infection with Helicobacter pylori. This is usually treated with the use of potent antibiotics. Avoid highly salted and smoked food, eating diet that is high in fibre and vegetables has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of developing stomach cancer. Eating right and exercising regularly reduces the incidence of obesity which has been shown to be an important risk factor for stomach cancer. Also, it is recommended to cut down on alcohol and cigarette smoking.
8. Living with stomach cancer
The news that one has been diagnosed with stomach cancer is enough to cause much anxiety and fear. However, with the advances in clinical medicine, stomach cancer like any other cancer can be treated with little or no complication. For patients with advanced stomach disease, survival rate can be increased by using a combination of radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy.
After surgery for stomach cancer, your diet will be modified to suit your present need. In patients where part of the stomach has been removed, frequent meals high in nutrients, fibres and vegetables may be needed but in patients where the stomach was completely removed, elemental diet may be needed because food moves indirectly into the small intestines via the esophagus. Patients suffering from stomach cancer may be organized into support groups which will enable them cope psychologically after treatment.