Stomach cancer used to be common in the U.S. In fact, it was America’s leading cause of cancer death for much of the early 20th century. Now, though? It’s only about 1.5% of all new cancer diagnoses in the U.S. each year, according to the American Cancer Society.
That’s a good thing, right? Well, mostly.
Since stomach cancer is rare in the U.S., stomach cancer screenings are not recommended for people of average risk. Thus, early detection is rare, meaning that stomach cancer is often not found until its advanced stages. Because of this, it’s important to know the early warning signs, and how they may differ from more common stomach problems.
We spoke about stomach cancer with Madappa Kundranda, MD-PhD, director of the gastrointestinal cancer program at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center at Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert, AZ. He told us the symptoms to look for, the risk factors at play, and the best preventive steps you can take to prevent developing stomach cancer.
Signs and symptoms of stomach cancer
Another reason that stomach cancer, also called gastric cancer, goes undiagnosed is that its earliest symptoms — bloating, heartburn, nausea, general discomfort — aren’t specific to the disease. Since people feel these common symptoms all the time, they oftentimes brush them off as no big deal. However, there are some other more specific stomach cancer warning signs that could tip you off:
- Abdominal pain
- Unexpected weight loss and decreased or lost appetite
- Extreme fatigue
- Bloody or black stools
- Recurring, out-of-the-ordinary diarrhea or constipation
- Gastrointestinal symptoms you’ve never experienced, like reflux
- Feeling of fullness after eating small amounts of food
- Yellow skin and eyes
A lot of these symptoms come from other internal problems that stomach cancer has intensified. When any of these symptoms persist for more than two weeks or increase over time it’s important to talk with your doctor. They may be related to stomach cancer, and not just general stomach pain, Dr. Kundranda said.
One of the most common risk factors for stomach cancer is a bacterial infection called helicobacter pylori, also known as H. pylori. In the U.S., this infection is more common among older adults, people of Black/African American or Hispanic decent and people with lower incomes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 30 to 40% of people in the U.S. get H. pylori, but most often it goes undetected because it does not usually cause symptoms or illness.
Age and gender can also increase your risk of stomach cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 60% of people diagnosed each year are at least 65 years old and the majority of those patients are male.
Dr. Kundranda pointed out some other risk factors, such as obesity, eating processed meats, heavy consumption of alcohol and tobacco, exposure to chemicals, ethnicity and geography, previous stomach surgery, certain medical conditions and a family history of stomach cancer. If you identify with any of these risk factors and are experiencing symptoms, you should schedule a visit with your doctor.
Diagnosis and prevention
According to Dr. Kundranda, the “gold standard” for stomach cancer detection is an endoscopy with biopsies. When you get an endoscopy, a narrow, flexible tube with a light and camera on the end is sent down your throat and into your stomach to see if anything is wrong.
Practicing a healthy lifestyle is your best bet when it comes to prevention. Dr. Kundranda recommends a diet high in fruits and vegetables, regular exercise and maintaining a normal body mass index (BMI) as important ways to reduce your risk.
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