Globally, stomach cancer is the fifth most commonly diagnosed cancer and the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths. It is less common in the U.S., and the incidence rates have been declining in recent years. Even so, the American Cancer Society estimates new stomach cancer diagnoses in the U.S. at about 26,400 per year, with just over 11,000 deaths attributed to this type of cancer annually.
Exactly what is stomach cancer?
Also known as gastric cancer, stomach cancer is a disease that occurs when cells in the stomach—a hollow, muscular organ that receives and digests food—undergo abnormal changes that cause them to grow and divide uncontrollably. The excess cells then bind together and form tumors, which may grow deep into the stomach walls or invade nearby organs, such as the liver and pancreas.
In most cases, gastric cancer starts in the stomach lining, typically the innermost tissue layer known as the mucosa, which contains gastric glands that secrete digestive acids and enzymes.
What causes stomach cancer?
The causes of stomach lining cancer are not yet fully understood, but many researchers consider a certain type of bacterial infection to be one of the leading culprits. Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection is a common health condition affecting 30% to 40% of the U.S. population, and possibly as much as 75% of the world population. Of those, most are infected as children.
H. pylori doesn’t always cause symptoms, but in some people, it can break down the stomach’s protective inner coating and cause inflammation of the stomach lining, potentially leading to ulcers and even cancer.
Additionally, researchers have linked certain dietary and lifestyle choices with an increased risk of stomach cancer. Specifically, experts believe that sodium nitrate—a chemical found in cured and processed meats as well as smoked, salted and pickled foods—can potentially transform into a cancer-causing substance. Over the last several decades, the incidence of gastric cancer has been steadily declining in the United States, possibly due to the widespread availability of refrigeration, which has increased access to fresh food without preservatives or bacterial contamination.
What are the symptoms of stomach cancer?
The symptoms of early-stage stomach cancer are often similar to those of other, less serious conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and gastric ulcers. For instance, many people experience:
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting without blood
- Stomach pain
- Unintended weight loss
As stomach cancer progresses, it may produce additional symptoms, such as:
- Vomiting with blood
- Bloody stool
- Unintended weight loss
Are there known risk factors for gastric cancer?
As with any type of cancer, it’s important to consider that having certain risk factors may increase the odds of developing the disease, but it’s hardly a foregone conclusion. Knowing about the risk factors for stomach cancer is a good first step toward making informed lifestyle and health care choices.
With that said, the following factors are thought to raise a person’s risk of developing gastric cancer:
- Age — Most people diagnosed with stomach cancer are in their 60s and 70s.
- Gender — Men are about twice as likely to develop stomach cancer as women.
- Medical history — People with an H. pylori infection that has caused stomach inflammation and ulcers have a higher risk of developing stomach cancer. Those with close family members (such as a parent, sibling, or child) who have had stomach cancer or an H. pylori infection are advised to be tested for the bacteria and undergo treatment if it is discovered. Also, anyone who has had certain stomach-weakening conditions, including pernicious anemia or achlorhydria, has a higher risk of developing gastric cancer.
- Family history/genetics — People with a close relative that has had stomach cancer are considered to have a higher risk for the disease, and certain inherited genetic disorders can increase the risk as well.
- Race/ethnicity — Some studies have indicated that Black, Hispanic and Asian populations may have up to a 50% higher risk for gastric cancer than white people.
How is stomach cancer treated?
Stomach cancer treatment can vary based on several factors, including the stage and location of the tumor as well as the patient’s age, overall health and preferences. If an early-stage tumor is confined to the uppermost layers of the stomach, an endoscopic submucosal dissection (ESD) may be considered. During this procedure, the tumor is dissected from the gastric wall and removed through the mouth. Other possible options include radiation therapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapy.
If a tumor has grown beyond the superficial layers of the stomach, a partial or total gastrectomy may be considered. During this procedure, part or all of the stomach is removed; then, if necessary to restore digestive function, the esophagus is connected directly to the small intestine.
In Moffitt Cancer Center’s renowned Gastrointestinal Oncology Program, our patients can benefit from the expertise of multiple stomach cancer specialists, including surgical oncologists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, gastroenterologists, rehabilitation therapists and supportive care specialists. Together, we take a highly collaborative and coordinated approach to stomach cancer treatment, helping each patient achieve the best possible outcome and quality of life.
In addition to a full range of traditional stomach cancer treatment options, Moffitt also has a robust portfolio of clinical trials, which provide our patients with opportunities to be among the first to benefit from cutting-edge treatments that are not yet available in other settings. Due in part to our trailblazing research, Moffitt has earned the prestigious designation of Comprehensive Cancer Center from the National Cancer Institute.
To request an appointment with a specialist in the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete our new patient registration form online. As Florida’s top cancer hospital, Moffitt is changing the model. We know that every day counts after a cancer diagnosis, and we want to support you with compassionate care every step of the way. A referral is not required.
Cancer.net: Stomach Cancer Statistics
CDC: Cancer Deaths in the United States
MedlinePlus: Helicobacter Pylori Infections
Cancer.net: Stomach Cancer Risk Factors
NEJM: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Gastric Cancer Risk