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11 Common Early Signs of Stomach Cancer

January 06, 2021

More than 7 in 100,000 people are diagnosed with stomach cancer each year, while 3 in 100,000 die from the disease. About 0.8% of all men and women will be diagnosed with stomach cancer at some point in their life. As of 2017, 116,525 in the United States were living with stomach cancer.

In 2020, the National Cancer Institute estimates 27,600 new cases of stomach cancer will be diagnosed, which is roughly 1.5% of all new cancer cases. The NCI also projects 11,010 deaths from stomach cancer in 2020, which is 1.8% of all cancer deaths.

Because stomach cancer affects men and women differently, and can be difficult to diagnose, it is crucial to understand its unique traits and the illnesses it can mimic. This article covers the signs and symptoms of stomach cancer, the different disease stages, primary causes, warning signs and how to manage it.

What is stomach cancer?


Stomach cancer, also called gastric cancer, occurs when normal healthy cells are replaced by growing cancer cells within the stomach lining. The stomach is located directly below the esophagus, the tube that food moves through to get to the intestines after swallowing. The stomach is one part of the digestive tract that digests food and moves nutrients through the gut to the small intestine.

Since this type of cancer is typically slow-growing, it can take years to develop. Stomach cancer often starts when cells that were once healthy begin growing out of control in the mucosa of the stomach lining. This collection of cancerous cells is known as a tumor, and over time these cells spread into other layers of the stomach.

What are the different types of stomach cancer?

Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, is the name for a category of cancer. There are many different types of stomach cancer:

  • Adenocarcinoma: Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of gastric cancer, comprising more than 90% of all stomach cancers. Carcinoma that occurs in the innermost lining of the stomach.  
  • Lymphoma: Cancer of the immune system that accounts for 4% of all stomach cancer, which is not from the mucosa of the stomach lining. It is broken up into primary and secondary lymphoma of the stomach.
    • Primary lymphoma involves the stomach and can eventually affect the lymph nodes, bone marrow and other parts of the body.
    • Secondary lymphoma initially involves other parts of the body, like circulating blood, lymph nodes, bone marrow and other organs. Secondarily, cancer spreads to the stomach.
  • Gastrointestinal Stroma Tumor: A kind of soft tissue sarcoma that can grow in the stomach’s connective tissue. 
  • Neuroendocrine cancer: Also known as carcinoid tumors, neuroendocrine cancer originates from cells in the intestine’s endocrine and nervous systems.

What are the different stages of stomach cancer?

Stomach cancer is staged based on the severity of cancerous cell growth and spread. Adenocarcinoma is initially evaluated by the tumor, node metastasis (TNM) system.

  • T: How deeply has the tumor spread into the stomach wall?
  • N: Has the stomach cancer spread to the lymph nodes?
  • M: Has the stomach cancer spread to other parts of the body?

After the TNM staging information has been taken into account, the cancer is staged at 0 or 1 to 4. Tumor classifications for staging are as follows:

  • Stage 0 is early cancer on the surface of the stomach lining.
  • Stage 1A or 1B
  • Stage 2A or 2B, commonly with  deeper stomach wall involved
  • Stage 3A or 3B or 3C, commonly with lymph node(s) involvement
  • Stage 4 means cancer has metastasized elsewhere in the body outside of the stomach.
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What are the main causes of stomach cancer?

There is no single cause of stomach cancer and sometimes it happens without any known risk factors. Lifestyle choices can increase the likelihood of stomach cancer. However, those who experience long-term stomach inflammation from either lifestyle choices or chronic illness are at higher risk.

The common causes of stomach cancer are often related to a medical history that includes:

  • H. pylori bacterial infections: A common stomach infection that often causes ulcers.
  • Tumors: Other tumors occurring elsewhere in the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Stomach polyps: Abnormal tissue growth in the stomach lining.
  • Stomach reflex (GERD)

There are lifestyle changes you can make that may decrease your risk of stomach cancer. These include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Having a healthy diet  and avoiding
    • Processed foods
    • Smoked foods or meat
    • Salted foods or increased sodium
  • Being physically active
  • Cooking and storing food properly
  • Avoiding alcohol abuse
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

Risk factors for stomach cancer that you cannot change, include:

  • Your age (50 years or older)
  • Being male
  • Being of Asian, South American or Belarusian descent
  • Having a family history of stomach cancer
  • Having a history of stomach surgery
  • Having pernicious anemia, which is a vitamin deficiency that may be related to either lifestyle or disease

Does stomach cancer affect men and women differently?

It is important to look for signs of stomach cancer in adults over the age of 55. However, it most commonly affects those in their 60s or 70s. While it is crucial to be aware of the signs of stomach cancer in females, men are more likely to develop stomach cancer. In 2020, 16,980 men and 10,620 women are projected to be diagnosed with the disease. Men have a lifetime risk of 1 in 95 of developing stomach cancer, while women have a 1 in 154 risk. The signs of stomach cancer in men are typically no different than in women.

What are the early warning signs of stomach cancer?

The first signs of stomach cancer are often vague. In fact, stomach cancer signs may be heartburn, indigestion, changes in appetite, nausea and vomiting. The common signs of stomach cancer that a patient experiences include: 

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting, with or without blood
  • Change in appetite
  • Swelling of the abdomen
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • “Vague” discomfort in the abdomen above the navel
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Upper abdomen fullness below the chest bone after consuming a small amount of food
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Anemia (low hemoglobin)

What can mimic the symptoms of stomach cancer?

Even if you are experiencing symptoms, this does not always mean you have cancer. Many of the common signs of stomach cancer are often other gastrointestinal conditions, such as GERD, gastritis or peptic ulcers. These conditions can be diagnosed by your doctor and managed with medication.

Can stomach cancer go undetected?

Yes, stomach cancer can go undetected for years because there is no warning signs in the early stages. However, while early signs of stomach cancer are often vague, recognizing them will increase the likelihood of discovering the disease sooner.

How can you detect stomach cancer early?

Be sure to contact your medical provider if you feel like something is not right. There are screening tests for stomach cancer when people are at risk for or are experiencing signs and symptoms. Diagnostic evaluations for gastric cancer include:

  • Complete medical history and physical exam
  • Upper gastrointestinal endoscopy to view the esophagus, stomach and small intestine after sedation. A small, flexible tube is inserted into the mouth with a tiny camera on the end that allows the doctor to see inside your stomach.
  • Biopsy of stomach tissue to be evaluated under a microscope
  • CT scan to visualize organs during X-ray
  • Endoscopic ultrasound to diagnose and treat stomach cancer at the same time by visualizing organs and nearby blood vessels
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan to illuminate cancer cells. A radioactive sugar tracer is used because cancer cells use more sugar than healthy cells and the tracer illuminates the cancer cells.
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Can you treat stomach cancer by changing your diet?

Using a healthy diet to treat stomach cancer is not enough to cure cancer, but you can talk to your doctor about using it as part of a medical plan to improve your overall health. Those who eat a diet rich in produce like fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains may decrease their risk for stomach cancer. However, some studies show that increasing plant-based foods reduces the risk of fatal stomach cancer in men, but not women. Talk with your healthcare provider about your dietary options.

What kind of doctor treats stomach cancer?

There is a team of specialists that cares for people with stomach cancer:

  • Gastroenterologist: a doctor who specializes in the stomach and intestines
  • Surgical oncologist: a doctor who surgically removes cancer tumors and cancerous cells
  • Medical oncologist: a doctor who treats cancer with oral or systemic medication
  • Radiation oncologist: a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with radiation therapy
  • Pathologist: a doctor who evaluates cells, tissues and organs and performs other laboratory tests to diagnose disease
  • Radiologist: a doctor who uses imaging tests to diagnose disease

Depending on your condition and where you are in your treatment, you may meet with any one of these specialists at a given time.

How can you treat stomach cancer?

The treatments for stomach cancer vary depending on the type of cancer you have, its location in the body, if it is advanced and your personalized care plan. At The University of Kansas Cancer Center, we offer clinical trials that may provide new treatment options for stomach cancer.

Possible options include:

  • Radiation: High-energy X-rays to destroy cancer cells, typically done using a machine outside the body.
  • Chemotherapy: Using one or more drugs to destroy cancer cells by preventing cancer cell growth.
  • Surgery: GI surgery is typically a minimally invasive procedure. The surgeon removes the tumor, as well as some surrounding healthy tissue to determine the extent of disease.
  • Targeted therapy: Treatment that targets the genes, proteins or tissue that supports the cancerous cell growth and survival. Targeted therapy blocks the growth and spread of cancer cells and minimizes damage to healthy cells.

Is stomach cancer fatal?

Stomach cancer can be fatal if it is not found early. If found early, stomach cancer can be curable. However, stomach cancer is often not diagnosed until it has spread to the lymph nodes or other organs. In its advanced stages, only 1 in 5 people will survive for 5 years. 

Why choose The University Of Kansas Cancer Center for stomach cancer diagnosis and treatment?

For a diagnosis as crucial as stomach cancer, there are many benefits to trusting our cancer team with your care. Our cancer center is 1 of only 71 NCI-designated cancer centers nationwide, and we have experts for diagnosing and treating stomach cancer. We are a pioneer in new clinical trial research that leads to innovative treatments. In addition, our hospital continues to rank as the best in Kansas City and in Kansas according to U.S. News & World Report.

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