By Dr. Ninad Katdare, Senior Surgical Oncologist at HCG Cancer Centre, Mumbai
If you suffer from indigestion and heartburn, beware! It could indicate stomach cancer or gastric cancer. In this case, early diagnosis is the key to a cure. But it often does not get diagnosed until it has spread to the lymph nodes or to the other organs of the body. Also, its traits mimic other illnesses, and hence the moment any unusual change is noticed in the body, it must be shown to a medical specialist.
Gastric cancer, also called stomach cancer, occurs when normally healthy cells get replaced by growing cancer cells within the stomach lining. The stomach is a muscular sac located in the upper part of the abdomen. Cancers in the stomach can develop very rapidly hence it becomes important to look out for early signs to come up with an effective treatment.
Early signs of gastric cancer include heartburn, indigestion, difficulty swallowing, change in appetite, nausea, feeling bloated after eating, vomiting with or without blood, swelling of the abdomen, discomfort in the abdomen above the navel, abdominal pain, feeling of fullness in upper abdomen below the breast bone after consuming smaller portions of food, unintentional weight loss and decrease in hemoglobin.
These symptoms can resemble some common signs of other gastrointestinal conditions like GERD, gastritis or peptic ulcers as well. Hence if these symptoms persist despite adequate medications, then they need to be comprehensively evaluated at the earliest to rule out stomach cancers. If stomach cancer goes undetected, it can become fatal.
Causes and Risks
Stomach cancer forms when there is a genetic change in the DNA of the stomach cells. Because of this change, the cells grow rapidly and form a tumor that further invades and destroys healthy tissues. With time, it then spreads to other parts of the body.
Factors that increase the likelihood of developing stomach cancer are:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease
- Family history of stomach cancer
- Infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)
- Long-term stomach inflammation (gastritis)
- History of stomach polyps or stomach ulcers
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Smoking or chewing tobacco
- Diet high in fatty, salty, smoked or pickled foods
The risk of stomach cancer can be prevented by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. These include limiting alcohol consumption and the use of tobacco products as it helps reduce the risk for many medical problems. Avoid eating smoked and pickled foods and salted meats and fish. Eating plenty of fiber, fresh fruits, and vegetables with plenty of whole grain foods and vitamin-rich foods can also lower the risk of stomach cancer.
If you witness any symptoms, immediately see a medical practitioner who will help evaluate the symptoms based on complete medical history and physical examination.
Treatment varies depending on the type of cancer, its location, and how far it has advanced in the body. The treatment options include
- Radiation is where high-energy X-rays are used to destroy cancer cells with the help of a machine outside the body.
- Chemotherapy is done using one or more drugs to destroy the cancer cells by preventing its cell growth or surgery is prescribed.
- Surgery can be by open technique or as a minimally invasive procedure where the tumor along with some surrounding healthy tissue is removed to determine the extent of the disease.
Early diagnosis is the key to improving the outlook for stomach cancer. Some risk factors such as family history are not within a person’s control. But the moment there is trouble eating, nausea, dyspepsia, reflux or any symptoms that begin to bother, one must visit a medical specialist. You might want to consider getting a screening test with a doctor’s advice if you believe that you are at risk for developing gastric cancer. The chances of recovery are better if the diagnosis is made at an early stage. This will also help in better treatment outcomes.