Your gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) is 25-feet long and extends from your mouth to your anus. This system is responsible for extracting nutrients from food and removing waste. Your entire GI tract is exposed to everything that you eat and drink. Gastrointestinal cancers are common, and gaining in diagnosis each year. Gastrointestinal cancers include esophageal cancer, stomach cancer, liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, and colorectal cancers. While 5 -10% of GI cancers are caused by a genetic component, the vast majority are preventable and are directly related to unhealthy behaviors and environmental factors. 

Gastrointestinal cancers will often show no symptoms early on because tumors will grow in the empty spaces of your GI tract. Symptoms of this digestive system condition won’t show until the tumor has reached a larger size, and symptoms will be related to its specific location.

When symptoms appear, they will typically include:

  • Bloating
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Indigestion
  • Dark, bloody stools
  • Vomiting blood
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Unintentional weight loss

GI Cancer Risk Factors

Risk factors for all GI cancers are similar and include: 

  • High intake of processed and high-fat foods
  • Alcohol and tobacco use
  • Increased age
  • GERD and Barrett’s esophagus
  • Obesity and sedentary lifestyle

GI Cancer Risk Reduction

Some things you can do to help reduce your risk of developing GI cancer include:

  • Engage in regular exercise
  • Eat a low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • Reduce red-meat consumption
  • Limit alcohol intake

Gastrointestinal Cancers

The bad news is, gastrointestinal (GI) cancer is common. In fact, GI cancers, including esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreatic, and colorectal cancers, are the most common cancers in both men and women in the United States and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths (second to lung cancer), making it one of the — statistically — most lethal cancers. However, the silver lining is that GI cancers are both preventable and treatable. Most GI cancer patients who don’t survive their cancer identified the problem when it was too late or after it had metastasized (spread to other parts of the body). With early detection and intervention, the survival rate is dramatically improved. Cancer screening and honest discussions with your doctor about your digestive health and bowel changes are important. 

Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer is cancer that originates in the esophagus. There are approximately 18,440 new cases of esophageal cancer diagnosed in the United States each year and kills about 16,000 Americans each year. Esophageal cancer is responsible for 2.7% of all cancer deaths, with slightly higher rates in men than women. Esophageal cancer has been linked to tobacco or alcohol use, GERD, and obesity. Men are three times more likely to develop esophageal cancer than women, and is more commonly seen in African-Americans than any other ethnicity. To reduce your chances of developing esophageal cancer, engage in a healthy lifestyle and schedule regular cancer screenings. 

Stomach Cancer

Stomach cancer is the abnormal growth of cells that originates in the stomach. Cancer can manifest as adenocarcinoma (95%), lymphomas, gastrointestinal stromal tumor, carcinoid tumor, squamous cell carcinoma, small cell carcinoma, and leiomyosarcoma. 27,600 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States and it will claim approximately 11,000 American lives. Common symptoms of stomach cancer include the generic cancer symptoms listed above and a feeling of fullness, abdominal pain, poor appetite, swelling in the abdomen, and vague discomfort in the abdomen. Stomach cancer rates increase with age and nearly 60% of those diagnosed with stomach cancer are aged 65 or older, with the average age at diagnosis being 68. 

Liver Cancer

Liver cancer is cancer that originates in the liver or intrahepatic bile duct. The majority of liver cancer diagnosis are hepatocellular carcinoma. Other liver cancer forms include fibrolamellar, intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer), angiosarcoma and hemangiosarcoma, and hepatoblastoma. There will be approximately 42,800 new cases of liver or bile duct cancer diagnosed this year and it will claim 30,000 American lives. Liver and bile duct cancer is responsible for 5% of all cancer deaths.  

Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer is cancer that originates in the pancreas. 95% of pancreatic cancer is exocrine pancreatic adenocarcinoma. It is estimated that there will be more than 57,6000 new cases of pancreatic cancer diagnosed this year and cause more than 47,000 deaths. Pancreatic cancer is responsible for 7.8% of all cancer deaths. Symptoms of pancreatic cancer include: 

  • Radiating abdominal pain
  • Yellowing of skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Light-colored stools
  • Dark urine
  • Itchy skin
  • New diabetes diagnosis
  • Blood clots

Colorectal Cancers

Cancer Risk InfographicColorectal cancers are those that originate in the bowel, colon, or rectum. This year, there will be approximately 148,000 new cases diagnosed and it will be responsible for more than 53,000 deaths in the United States. Colorectal cancers are responsible for 8.8% of total cancer deaths in the US. Because of advances in screen techniques and treatments, between 2010 and 2016, there was a 64.6% 5-year survival rate for those living with colorectal cancer. 

In addition to the general GI cancer symptoms listed above, colorectal cancer may cause change in bowel habits, diarrhea, constipation, a feeling that your bowel is not empty after defecating, a feeling of fullness, a lump felt in the abdomen, or unexplained anemia. 

Colorectal cancer almost always develops from precancerous polyps that can be identified with routine screening colonoscopy and effectively removed before they become cancerous. For those aged 50 or older, those who have symptoms of possible cancer, or those who have a family history of colorectal cancer should be screened for this form of cancer. 

GI Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment at AHG of Greater Washington

AHG of Greater Washington brings industry-leading gastroenterologists to Washington DC and Vienna, Virginia. If you have any symptoms or are concerned about gastrointestinal cancer, we offer consultations and can test and diagnose you in order to initiate treatment. Treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation, medications, and surgery. Connect with us today.