Cancer is an abnormal development of cells causing uncontrolled growth and multiplication. Stomach cancer or gastric cancer is a common type of cancer and the tenth leading cause of death from cancer. It usually affects the cells of the stomach lining, forming a mass or tumour that can later spread to the lymph nodes, liver, lungs and bones as the disease advances.
Early symptoms of stomach cancer include indigestion, heartburn, swallowing difficulties, bloating, stomach ache and vomiting. As these symptoms are common to many other stomach conditions, it is possible that stomach cancer may be discovered at an advanced stage. Late symptoms include fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity (ascites), fatigue, loss of appetite and weight, anaemia and blood in the stools.
Stomach cancer commonly occurs in men over the age of 55 and in those who eat a lot of salty foods, pickles and smoked meats. Your likelihood of developing stomach cancer increases if you have a positive family history, gastritis (inflammation of the lining cells), stomach ulcers, Barrett’s oesophagus (abnormal cells near the junction of the oesophagus and stomach) or pernicious anaemia. In such cases, periodic screening for stomach cancer is recommended.
To diagnose stomach cancer your doctor will review your symptoms, eating habits, medical and family history. A physical examination is performed checking for abdominal masses. Your doctor will perform a gastroscopy, where a fibre-optic tube with a camera is introduced through your mouth into your stomach to provide a clear magnified view of the stomach lining and they'll possibly take a tissue sample for analysis. An ultrasound or CT scan may also be ordered to check for metastases and a barium swallow, to evaluate any swallowing difficulties.
Treatment depends on the extent of the cancer and your overall health. It may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy or immunotherapy. The aim of surgery is to remove the entire tumour with a margin of healthy tissue. All or part of the stomach may have to be removed. Chemotherapy involves the use of cancer destroying drugs. Radiation therapy destroys cancer with the help of high-energy waves or particles. Targeted therapy attacks specific components of the cancer cell or its environment to inhibit growth. Immunotherapy boosts your body’s natural defence mechanism against cancer. Supportive or palliative care is also provided for those suffering from the side effects of cancer treatment.