Small intestine cancer is a relatively uncommon malignancy that develops in the small bowel, a long, coiled, tube-like organ that carries food from the stomach to the large intestine. An important component of the digestive tract, the small intestine breaks down food received from the stomach to facilitate the absorption of nutrients, then passes the waste onto the large intestine so that it can be eliminated from the body.
The most common type of small intestine cancer is adenocarcinoma, which originates in the glandular cells that line the inner walls of the organ. Most tumors form in the upper portion of the small bowel near the point where it connects to the stomach. A tumor in that area, which is known as the duodenum, can potentially grow large enough to interfere with the passage of food or create a full blockage.
Other, less common types of small intestine cancer include leiomyosarcoma and other sarcomas, carcinoid tumors, gastrointestinal stromal tumors and lymphoma.
What are the signs of small intestine cancer?
Many small bowel tumors stay silent and go undetected for many years. When symptoms occur, they are often nonspecific or easily attributed to another, less serious condition. For instance, some patients experience:
- Stomach pain that worsens after eating
- Bloody or darkened stool
- Low red blood cell counts (anemia)
- Yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fatigue and weakness
- Unexplained weight loss
As with any other type of cancer, an early diagnosis of small intestine cancer is the key to achieving the best possible outcome and quality of life. Therefore, it is important to promptly discuss any unusual health changes with a physician who can determine the cause. In addition to performing a physical examination, a physician may order one or more diagnostic tests, such as bloodwork, imaging, an upper endoscopy or a biopsy to evaluate a suspicious growth if small intestine cancer is suspected.
What causes small intestine cancer?
Like most malignancies, small intestine cancer begins with DNA mutations that cause rapid and excessive cellular growth. As surplus cells build up, they can begin to bind together and form tumors in the small bowel. Researchers in the general medical community continue to explore possible triggers of the genetic changes that lead to the development of small intestine cancer. Because the condition is frequently diagnosed in elderly adults, some experts believe the cause may be related to degeneration associated with the natural aging process.
Additionally, some known risk factors for small intestine cancer include:
- A diet high in red meat and smoked foods
- Smoking and other forms of tobacco use
- Excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages
- Celiac disease, in which consumed gluten causes the immune system to attack the lining of the intestines
- Crohn’s disease, in which the immune system inadvertently targets the gastrointestinal tract
- Certain inherited syndromes, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), Lynch syndrome, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS) and MUTYH-associated polyposis
How is small intestine cancer treated?
Treatment for small intestine cancer can vary based on several individual factors, such as the location and stage of the tumor and the patient’s age, general health and preferences. Most tumors are surgically removed if possible. Surgery may also be considered to address a blockage caused by a nonresectable tumor. The specific procedure performed will depend on the location of the tumor. For instance, if it is situated:
- In the duodenum, an extensive Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy) may be considered.
- In the middle section of the small intestine, a segmental resection may be performed to remove the portion of the organ that contains the tumor.
- Near the end of the small intestine where it connects to the large intestine, portions of both the small intestine and the large intestine may need to be surgically removed.
If the cancer has spread beyond the small intestine into nearby lymph nodes or other tissues, surgery may be followed by chemotherapy or radiation therapy to target and destroy residual cancer cells and help prevent a recurrence.
Our innovative & comprehensive approach to treating small intestine cancer
In the renowned Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center, individualized patient care is paramount. Our multispecialty team offers the latest options in diagnostics, treatment and support, and we collaboratively develop a tailored treatment plan to meet the unique needs of each patient in our care. Our scientists perform extensive research and maintain a robust portfolio of clinical trials, ensuring that our patients have access to the most promising treatments for small intestine cancer that are currently available. As a testament to our unwavering commitment to one day finding a cure, Moffitt has been designated a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute, and we are the only cancer center based in Florida to have earned this prestigious designation.
If you would like to explore your small intestine cancer treatment options with a specialist at Moffitt, you can benefit from our expertise within one day. Request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing our new patient registration form online. As our patient, you will be a top priority of a cancer center that delivers nationally ranked care in new and transformative ways.