Stomach cancer is fairly uncommon, but more than 6,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the UK.
Stomach cancer (or gastric cancer) is cancer that forms in the stomach or the stomach wall. It is more common in older people, with 50% of cases occurring in people aged 75 or over, it’s also more common in men than women.
There are several different types of stomach cancer, but the most common type is adenocarcinoma, where cancers develop in the lining of the stomach. Adenocarcinomas represent 95% of all stomach cancers. Other cancers that can form include lymphoma of the stomach, which develops in the tissue that drains fluid and helps fight infection, and gastrointestinal stromal tumours, or GISTs.
The initial symptoms of stomach cancer are vague and easy to mistake for less serious conditions. These include:
- persistent indigestion and heartburn
- trapped wind and frequent burping
- feeling very full or bloated after meals
- persistent stomach pain
Symptoms of advanced stomach cancer can include:
- a loss of appetite
- blood in your poo or black poo
- weight loss
As the symptoms of early stomach cancer are similar to symptoms of other conditions, the cancer is often advanced by the time it is diagnosed, that’s why it is important to get any possible symptoms checked by a GP as soon as possible.
Your risk of developing the disease increases with age, as most cases occur in people aged 55 or over, and men are twice as likely as women to develop stomach cancer.
There’s no definitive idea of what causes most stomach cancer, but lifestyle factors do increase risk of developing it. This can include:
- a poor diet with too few fruits and vegetables
- too much red meat or processed meat
- a diet high in salt
Smoking tobacco increases your risk of getting stomach cancer with around 1 in 5 cases in the UK being linked to smoking.
Infection with H. Pylori causes around 1 in 3 cases. H. pylori is a bacteria that live in the mucous of the lining of the stomach. For most people, having a H. pylori infection will not cause any problems. But in some cases, long term infection can cause inflammation and stomach ulcers. About 4 out of 10 people in the UK have this infection and most people who have it don’t develop stomach cancer.
If you are referred to a specialist you will most likely have an endoscopy. This is a procedure which allows the specialist to examine your stomach by inserting an endoscope, which is a long tube that lets the specialist see down the throat so that they can diagnose the issue. If tissue that may be cancerous is found, a sample will be taken, a procedure called a biopsy. If the specialist thinks you may have cancer in the top part of your stomach, you may have an ultrasound scan at the same time as an endoscopy, this is called an endoscopic ultrasound. The procedure is mostly the same, but there will be an ultrasound probe on the endoscope.
You may also have a CT scan or a PET-CT scan to get a more accurate image of the cancer. Alternatively, you could have a laparoscopy. A laparoscopy is a small operation that lasts about half an hour in which you’ll be asleep under general anaesthetic. The surgeon will make 2 or 3 small cuts around your abdomen and belly button and will insert a laparoscope, which is similar to an endoscope, into your tummy to get a closer look at your stomach.
If you’re diagnosed with stomach cancer it may be possible to treat it by removing the abnormal areas from the lining of your stomach during an endoscopy. However, removing part, or all, of your stomach through either open surgery or a laparoscopy is more common. You might also need chemotherapy before and after surgery.