What is stomach cancer?

The body is made up of many types of cells. Normally, cells grow, divide and then die. Sometimes, cells mutate (change) and begin to grow and divide more quickly than normal cells. Rather than dying, these abnormal cells clump together to form tumors. If these tumors are cancerous (also called malignant tumors), they can invade and kill your body's healthy tissues. From these tumors, cancer cells can metastasize (spread) and form new tumors in other parts of the body. By contrast, noncancerous tumors (also called benign tumors) do not spread to other parts of the body.

Stomach cancer (also called gastric cancer) is the growth of cancer cells in the lining and wall of the stomach.

Who is at risk of getting stomach cancer?

Your chances of getting stomach cancer are higher if you have had a stomach infection caused by bacteria called Helicobacter pylori, which also causes ulcers in the stomach. You are also more likely to get stomach cancer if you:

  • Are a man
  • Are older than 50 years of age
  • Have a close relative who has had stomach cancer
  • Smoke cigarettes
  • Abuse alcohol
  • Are an African American, Hispanic American, Asian American or Pacific Islander
  • Have stomach polyps (small growths in the lining of your stomach)

Can I prevent stomach cancer?

There is no way to prevent stomach cancer. However, you can help reduce your risk of getting stomach cancer by not drinking a lot of alcohol or smoking. Also, eat a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, and make sure to get enough vitamin C. Vitamin C is found in foods such as oranges, grapefruit and broccoli.

What are the symptoms of stomach cancer?

Sometimes cancer can grow in the stomach for a long time before it causes symptoms. In the early stages, stomach cancer can cause the following symptoms:

  • Indigestion, stomach discomfort or heartburn
  • Nausea or loss of appetite
  • Feeling tired

When the cancer is larger, it can cause the following symptoms:

  • Blood in your stool or stools that are black in color
  • A bloated feeling after eating, even when eating a small amount
  • Vomiting after meals
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Stomach pain, especially after meals
  • Weakness and fatigue

Many of these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than cancer. However, if you have any of these problems and they don’t go away, talk with your doctor. The earlier stomach cancer is found, the better the chances are that it can be treated effectively.

How can my doctor tell if I have stomach cancer?

If your doctor suspects that you might have stomach cancer, he or she will look at your medical history and do a complete physical exam. Your doctor might use endoscopy (say: "in-dos-ko-pee") to try to see the tumor. For this exam, a thin, lighted tube is put into your mouth and passed down to your stomach. Your doctor may give you medicine before the test to make it more comfortable.

During endoscopy, your doctor might take a small piece of your stomach to check for cancer cells. This is called a biopsy sample. The sample is then sent to a lab where it is looked at under a microscope to determine if it is cancerous.

How is stomach cancer treated?

Treatment for stomach cancer may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination of these treatments. The choice of treatment depends on whether the cancer is just in the stomach or if it has spread to other places in the body. A person’s age and overall health will also affect the choice of treatment.