Gastrointestinal cancer, or stomach cancer is cancer that occurs in the stomach — the muscular sac located in the upper middle of your abdomen, just below your ribs. Your stomach receives and holds the food you eat and then helps to break down and digest it.
Another term for stomach cancer is gastric cancer. These two terms most often refer to stomach cancer that begins in the mucus-producing cells on the inside lining of the stomach (adenocarcinoma). Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of stomach cancer.
Stomach cancer is uncommon in the United States, and the number of people diagnosed with the disease each year is declining. Stomach cancer is much more common in other areas of the world, particularly China and Japan.
Your treatment options for stomach cancer depend on the stage of your cancer, your overall health and your preferences.
The goal of surgery is to remove all of the stomach cancer and a margin of healthy tissue, when possible. Options include:
- Removing early-stage tumors from the stomach lining.Very small cancers limited to the inside lining of the stomach may be removed using endoscopy in a procedure called endoscopic mucosal resection. The endoscope is a lighted tube with a camera that's passed down your throat into your stomach. The doctor uses special tools to remove the cancer and a margin of healthy tissue from the stomach lining.
- Removing a portion of the stomach (subtotal gastrectomy). During subtotal gastrectomy, the surgeon removes only the portion of the stomach affected by cancer.
- Removing the entire stomach (total gastrectomy). Total gastrectomy involves removing the entire stomach and some surrounding tissue. The esophagus is then connected directly to the small intestine to allow food to move through your digestive system.
- Removing lymph nodes to look for cancer. The surgeon examines and removes lymph nodes in your abdomen to look for cancer cells.
- Surgery to relieve signs and symptoms. Removing part of the stomach may relieve signs and symptoms of a growing tumor in people with advanced stomach cancer. In this case, surgery can't cure advanced stomach cancer, but it can make you more comfortable.
Surgery carries a risk of bleeding and infection. If all or part of your stomach is removed, you may experience digestive problems.
Radiation therapy uses high-powered beams of energy, such as X-rays, to kill cancer cells. The energy beams come from a machine that moves around you as you lie on a table.
Radiation therapy can be used before surgery (neoadjuvant radiation) to shrink a stomach tumor so that it's more easily removed. Radiation therapy can also be used after surgery (adjuvant radiation) to kill any cancer cells that might remain around your stomach. Radiation is often combined with chemotherapy. In cases of advanced cancer, radiation therapy may be used to relieve side effects caused by a large tumor.
Radiation therapy to your stomach can cause diarrhea, indigestion, nausea and vomiting.
Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs travel throughout your body, killing cancer cells that may have spread beyond the stomach.
Chemotherapy can be given before surgery (neoadjuvant chemotherapy) to help shrink a tumor so that it can be more easily removed. Chemotherapy is also used after surgery (adjuvant chemotherapy) to kill any cancer cells that might remain in the body. Chemotherapy is often combined with radiation therapy. Chemotherapy may be used alone in people with advanced stomach cancer to help relieve signs and symptoms.
Chemotherapy side effects depend on which drugs are used. The type of stomach cancer you have determines which chemotherapy drugs you'll receive.
Targeted therapy uses drugs that attack specific abnormalities within cancer cells. Targeted drugs used to treat stomach cancer include:
- Trastuzumab (Herceptin) for stomach cancer cells that produce too much HER2.
- Imatinib (Gleevec) for a rare form of stomach cancer called gastrointestinal stromal tumor.
- Sunitinib (Sutent) for gastrointestinal stromal tumor.
Tests of your cancer cells can tell your doctor whether these treatments are likely to work for you.
Clinical trials are studies of new treatments and new ways of using existing treatments. Participating in a clinical trial may give you a chance to try the latest treatments. But clinical trials can't guarantee a cure. In some cases, researchers might not be certain of a new treatment's side effects.
Ask your doctor whether you may be eligible for a clinical trial. Together you can discuss the benefits and risks.