Think about taking a bite of a delicious meal. You carefully chew, savoring the flavors, and swallow -- but what happens then? Every part of your body that the bite of food travels through as it digests is your gastrointestinal system. From your esophagus to your stomach to your intestine, the gastrointestinal system, often known as the GI system, is vital to digesting food and getting nutrients to every part of your body.
Unfortunately, cancer can impact every part of the GI system. To mark World Cancer Day, we're looking at the different types of GI cancers and how a GI Doctor can help you prevent them -- or, if necessary, detect and treat them early for the best possible outcome.
What are the different types of GI Cancer?
While there are many types of GI cancers, there are some that are most common. They include:
The esophagus transports food and liquids from your mouth to your stomach. Cancer in this 8-inch muscular tube can be difficult to detect until it is advanced, and for this reason, esophageal cancer is the sixth deadliest cancer in the U.S. It is most common in men who smoke or among people who have issues with reflux.
The stomach helps to digest and process the nutrients in the food you eat. Cancers in the stomach are slow to develop and don't produce many symptoms in the early stages. About 90 to 95% of cancers in the gastric area are adenocarcinomas, a type of tumor that grows in the stomach lining. Ongoing H pylori infection and a diet high in salted and processed foods are risk factors in developing stomach cancer.
The large intestine, also called the colon, absorbs water and breaks down the food you eat, which has already been processed in the stomach and small intestine, into waste products that are then passed through the rectum. Unfortunately, colorectal cancers are the second leading cause of cancer death in women and the third most common in men. Regular screening for polyps in the intestine can identify these cancers while they can be most easily treated.
The liver both produces enzymes and other chemicals that aid in digestion and helps detoxify your body. Most tumors in the liver come from another type of cancer in the body; cancers that start in the liver are more rare -- only about 2% of cancer in the U.S. -- but very serious, since they are hard to detect. People at risk of liver cancer include those who have hepatitis B or C, cirrhosis, or environmental exposure to carcinogens.
The pancreas helps control blood sugar. About 60,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with pancreatic cancer. Tumors in the pancreas can be hard to find and treat; rates have been slowly rising in the U.S.
What are the risk factors for GI Cancers?
Cancer is a disease where healthy cells malfunction and begin to reproduce haphazardly and rapidly, causing tumors that grow into surrounding tissues. Sometimes it is impossible to understand why some individuals develop cancers and others do not, but doctors do know that there are certain risk factors that should be avoided whenever possible.
- Smoking. If you partake in any tobacco-related products, the associated toxins can impact cell growth.
- Obesity and diet. Being overweight, or regularly eating less healthy foods like red meat and processed foods, can impact your overall health.
- Genetic mutations. Sometimes you inherit genes that put you at higher risk of cancer. If you have a close family member who has or has had a GI cancer, make sure your doctor is aware.
- Age. As you get older, your cells are more likely to malfunction. That's why certain screening tests are recommended as you grow older.
- Having other diseases. You may be at higher risk of esophageal cancer, for instance, if you have a history of reflux.
Risk factors don't mean you will develop cancers, but minimizing their impact can help you feel better and reduce your chances of developing gi cancers.
What are the symptoms of GI Cancers?
Although GI cancers encompass many parts of the body, they have similar symptoms related to the digestive function. These include:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Bleeding: blood in vomit or bowel movements
- Nausea and vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
If you find that you are experiencing these symptoms, it's important to schedule a visit with your GI doctor right away. Although some of these symptoms are common and can be the result of other, less deadly problems, the key to successful treatment of GI cancers is early detection.
Detecting GI Cancers
Early detection can make the treatment of most types of GI cancers less invasive and more successful. Unfortunately, many GI cancers have vague or mild symptoms at first, which makes it tough to determine if you have them until they are in advanced stages. That's why testing, including endoscopy for upper GI tract issues and colonoscopy for the lower GI tract, are important tools to finding small growths before they grow.
Medical experts recommend that patients over age 50 have a colonoscopy to screen for polyps or abnormalities in the colon or rectum. This test should be repeated every 10 years, or more frequently if you are at higher risk. There is no recommended screening test for esophageal or stomach cancers, but your GI doctor can arrange an endoscopy if you exhibit symptoms. No screening tests are available for liver or pancreatic cancer, but blood tests and ultrasounds or other medical scans can be used if you have a history of these cancers in your family or other high-risk factors.
What You Can Do Now
What can you do right now to minimize your risk of gastrointestinal system cancers? Start by scheduling an appointment with a gastroenterologist at Carolina Digestive Health. We can assess your risk factors, recommend and perform any screening tests like a blood test, colonoscopy or endoscopy, and help you to create and maintain a more healthy lifestyle. Contact us today for your appointment.