Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment

What is gastrointestinal cancer?

surgical operation in progress with surgical tools

Gastrointestinal cancer refers to the presence of cancerous cells in the gastrointestinal tract and digestive organs, including the esophagus, biliary system, small intestine, large intestine, stomach, pancreas, rectum, and anus. Medical oncologists treat patients with gastrointestinal cancer among other conditions.

What are the symptoms of gastrointestinal cancer?

The onset of symptoms for gastrointestinal cancer could be slow, so it is important to go for regular medical checkups as recommended by your medical professionals. Symptoms typically include pain in the abdomen, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, or feelings of weakness, bloody or tarry stools, or a noticeable lump in the abdomen.

endoscopy instrument held by a doctor with gloves

What are the causes of and risk factors for gastrointestinal cancer?

The causes for gastrointestinal cancer are not well understood, but there are certain risk factors that seem to be related to the condition. There is no known hereditary risk, but studies have shown that certain other diseases may increase the risk for gastrointestinal cancer. These diseases are namely cystic fibrosis, familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), and Lynch syndrome.

Also of note is that the average age of diagnosis is 67 years old, and the disease tends to affect men more often than it affects women. Finally, certain lifestyle habits may increase the risk for gastrointestinal cancer, including tobacco use, a poor diet, and exposure to chemicals.

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Did you know?

Recent studies have shown long-term aspirin use may reduce the risk of getting gastrointestinal cancer. However this benefit does not seem to exist for all cancers. ¹

What are the possible complications of gastrointestinal cancer?

If left untreated, the possible complications of gastrointestinal cancer include unintended weight loss due to the discomfort associated with eating, abdominal pain, nausea, difficulty swallowing, vomiting, or bleeding. Jaundice, fluid collection in the abdominal cavity, fever, and malaise may also occur.

There are also complications associated with the treatment for this type of cancer. These can include needing to change dietary habits to be more mild and healthy as well as possible changes to bowel movements.

When should I see a specialist for gastrointestinal cancer?

You should visit a medical oncologist as soon you start experiencing symptoms that you believe may be indicative of gastrointestinal cancer. The sooner your diagnosis is confirmed, the sooner you can begin treatments and increase your chances for a good prognosis. If you have an average risk for stomach cancer, it is always worthwhile to go through routine screening.

How should I prepare for my appointment?

To prepare for your appointment, you should call your medical oncologist and ensure they have the slides with the results from your biopsy so they can review the tissue and findings. Be prepared to discuss your entire medical history, including all the medications you take regularly.

If possible, have someone attend the appointment with you to help you absorb all the information you will be given that day. If you are going to have an endoscopy, you should make sure to refrain from eating or drinking for 4 to 8 hours to make sure your digestive system is totally clear.

How do specialists screen for and diagnose gastrointestinal cancer?

Medical oncologists conduct testing in the esophagus and stomach to screen for gastrointestinal cancer. Upper endoscopy, a procedure in which the medical oncologist guides a flexible, lighted tube with a camera down the throat and through the digestive tract is the primary testing procedure. If anything abnormal is detected, a biopsy of the suspect tissue is performed to confirm the diagnosis.

What treatments are available for gastrointestinal cancer?

Treatments available for gastrointestinal cancer include the general cancer treatment options like chemotherapy and radiation. However, radiation on its own has not been shown to be completely affected in treating this type of cancer, and chemotherapy needs other drugs in conjunction in order to be more effective.

Medical oncologists may also recommend removing the affected part of the gastrointestinal tract with the tumor depending on the stage of the cancer.

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1. [1] Tsoi KK, Chan FC, Hirai HW, Sung JJ. Long-term use of aspirin is more effective to reduce the incidences of gastrointestinal cancers than non-gastrointestinal cancers: a 10-year population based study in Hong Kong. Presented at: 2017 United European Gastroenterology Week; October 28-November 1, 2017; Barcelona, Spain; abstract 109.