Stomach (gastric) cancer symptoms may be unrecognizable in the cancer’s early stages. Symptoms may not appear initially, and if they do, they often seem unrelated to cancer. Some stomach cancer symptoms are shared by more common conditions like ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and gastroenteritis. For this reason, it’s important to promptly speak with a physician if potential symptoms of stomach cancer develop to determine their root cause and find appropriate treatment.
Mild to moderate stomach cancer symptoms
Symptoms of early-stage stomach cancer are often mild. They may include:
- Discomfort or pain in the stomach area, usually above the navel
- Difficulty swallowing
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained nausea
- Feeling full or bloated after a small meal
- A sensation of food getting stuck in the throat while eating
Severe stomach cancer symptoms
As stomach cancer progresses, symptoms may become more severe and involve:
- Weakness or fatigue
- Vomiting, with or without blood
- Blood in stool
- Unexplained weight loss
If stomach cancer has spread to another area of the body (metastasized), it may cause additional symptoms specific to that area. For instance, when stomach cancer spreads to the lungs, it can cause difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and coughing. It’s important for patients who are experiencing any symptoms of stomach cancer to seek medical attention, especially if they persist for an extended period of time or worsen. (Click here for tips on questions that you should ask your stomach cancer specialist.)
Types of stomach cancer
here are a number of different types of stomach cancer, the most common being adenocarcinomas, which develop in the stomach’s inner layer (mucosa). In fact, adenocarcinomas constitute approximately 90% to 95% of all stomach cancers. Stomach adenocarcinomas can be divided into two main subtypes:
- Intestinal – The more common of the two subtypes, intestinal carcinomas typically have a better prognosis, in large part because there’s a greater chance that they can be treated with targeted drug therapy.
- Diffuse – When compared to intestinal carcinomas, the less common diffuse carcinomas generally spread faster and are more difficult to treat.
Other malignancies that can start in the stomach include:
- Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs)
- Neuroendocrine tumors (including carcinoids)
- Squamous cell carcinomas
- Small cell carcinomas
Causes of stomach cancer
The exact causes of stomach cancer are not yet well understood in the general medical community. Cancer in general occurs when a mutation develops in a cell’s DNA, causing the cell to grow and divide abnormally and eventually form a tumor. What specifically triggers stomach cancer growth is still unclear, but several risk factors for this disease have been identified.
Stomach cancer risk factors
A risk factor is a trait, decision or behavior that may increase the chances of being diagnosed with a certain medical condition. Researchers have identified multiple risk factors for stomach cancer, most notably:
- A diet high in smoked and salty foods
- Male gender
- African-American, Asian or Hispanic descent
- Older age (most cases occur in people over 55)
- Certain medical problems, including pernicious anemia, gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), stomach polyps and long-term stomach inflammation
- Helicobacter pylori (H pylori) infection in the stomach
- Previous stomach surgery
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Certain inherited cancer symptoms, including Lynch syndrome and familial adenomatous polyposis
While individuals with the above risk factors may be more likely to develop stomach cancer, it’s important to remember that anyone can be diagnosed with this disease. People with potential symptoms of stomach cancer should always consult with a physician, even if they don’t have any known risk factors.
Preventing stomach cancer
It’s impossible to completely eliminate the threat of stomach cancer, but there are several steps that can be taken to help lower the risk and promote good digestive and overall health.
Lose excess weight
Individuals who are overweight or obese may be at a higher risk of developing stomach cancer.
Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables
Some studies have shown that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, particularly citrus fruits, onions, garlic and leeks, can reduce stomach cancer risk. Cutting out or limiting the consumption of processed and red meats, refined grains and sugars may also help prevent stomach cancer.
Increase physical activity
Routinely engaging in physical activity—with a physician’s guidance—plays an important role in losing excess weight and may lower the risk of stomach cancer.
Quit using tobacco
Tobacco use, including smoking cigarettes, increases the risk of developing stomach cancer near the esophagus as well as several other cancers. The American Cancer Society estimates that smoking is linked to one-third of all cancer deaths in the United States.
Treat an H pylori infection
H pylori is a bacterium that seems to significantly increase the likelihood of stomach cancer and can also cause chronic stomach inflammation. A physician may perform a blood test to confirm the presence of H pylori in the stomach and prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.
Diagnosing stomach cancer
If a physician suspects that a patient may have stomach cancer, multiple tests may be performed to make a diagnosis:
Physicians often use imaging tests to produce and view pictures of the stomach. Computed tomography (CT) scans are used to detect signs of stomach cancer, as well as barium swallow X-rays that create images of the upper gastrointestinal tract. Barium swallow tests are taken as the patient swallows a special liquid that helps produce clearer images.
During an upper endoscopy procedure, a thin and flexible tube containing a small camera on the end is gently guided down the throat and into the stomach. This allows a physician to view live images of the stomach and look for cancerous changes. If signs of cancer are found, a biopsy may then be performed to remove a small piece of stomach tissue for evaluation.
Stages of stomach cancer
Once a diagnosis has been confirmed, additional imaging tests or surgery may be performed to stage the cancer—or see if and how far it has spread—and determine an appropriate treatment plan. Stomach cancer is classified into the following five stages based on how far the malignancy has progressed, ranging from Stage 0 (least severe) to Stage 4 (most severe):
Cancer specialists will assign this stage to stomach cancer when they’ve identified abnormal cells within the inner layer of the stomach but haven’t detected abnormalities anywhere else in the body.
There are two circumstances that can cause stomach cancer to be classified as Stage 1:
- If it has spread from the stomach’s inner layer to its second layer (submucosa) and up to six lymph nodes
- If it has spread to the stomach’s muscular layer (subserosa) but not to any lymph nodes or nearby organs
Stomach cancer can be assigned this stage in three different situations:
- If it has spread to the submucosa and between seven to 15 lymph nodes
- If it has spread to the subserosa and up to six lymph nodes
- If it has spread to the outer layer of the stomach (serosa) but not to any lymph nodes or nearby organs
Stomach cancer will be classified as Stage 3 under the following two circumstances:
- If it has spread to the subserosa and between seven to 15 lymph nodes
- If it has spread to nearby organs but not to any nearby lymph nodes or distant organs
Stomach cancer will be considered Stage 4 (the most advanced stage) in any of the following three situations:
- If it has spread to more than 15 lymph nodes
- If it has spread to nearby organs and one or more lymph nodes
- If it has spread to distant organs within the body
Our approach to stomach cancer
Moffitt Cancer Center’s Gastrointestinal Oncology Program is led by a multispecialty team that specializes in all aspects of stomach cancer care, including diagnosis, treatment and support. Designated as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute, Moffitt offers progressive stomach cancer treatment options and spearheads innovative clinical trials to improve the way stomach cancers are diagnosed and treated. And as a high-volume cancer center with specialists who focus exclusively on gastrointestinal malignancies, we address the most uncommon and complex cases of stomach cancer on a routine basis.
Call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online if you would like to speak with a Moffitt oncologist about potential stomach cancer symptoms or our treatment options. We are providing every new patient with rapid access to a cancer expert within a day, which is faster than any other cancer hospital in the country.