Cancers of the Gastrointestinal Tract

iStock_000015435691_Double.jpgColon Polyps and Cancer

Most colon cancer begins as an abnormal growth of tissue known as a polyp. Polyps may be benign (i.e., not cancer) or malignant (i.e., cancer). If the polyp is cancerous then it usually grows slowly over several years. There are several types of colon cancer, but more than 95 percent of colon cancers are known as adenocarcinoma. We do not know the cause of colon polyps and cancer, but research is ongoing. Regular screening is the best prevention method available. Colon cancer can cause many symptoms including diarrhea, constipation, pencil-thin stools, anal bleeding, abdominal pain or cramping and unintended weight loss.

Diagnosis

Colon cancer is often found after symptoms begin, but these symptoms usually only appear with advanced disease. Getting recommended screening tests allows clinicians to detect polyps and cancer in the early stages, before any symptoms begin. To diagnose colon polyps and cancer, healthcare providers utilize the patient’s medical history, physical exam and blood tests. Sometimes further testing is warranted including colonoscopy and biopsy of tissue taken from the colon.

Treatment Options

After colon cancer is diagnosed and its stage is determined, a team of dedicated physicians, nurses and other healthcare providers will discuss treatment options with the patient. In general, the main types of treatment are:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy

Esophageal Cancer

The esophagus is the tube that allows food to pass from the mouth to the stomach. There are two major types of cancer that can occur in the esophagus and are named for the type of cell they originate from: squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma. Other types are rare. The cause of esophageal cancer is not yet known, but there are several risk factors that make getting it more likely. These include smoking, drinking alcohol, frequent acid reflux and obesity. Symptoms of esophageal cancer include difficulty swallowing, chest pain and unintended weight loss.

Diagnosis

Esophageal cancer is usually found because signs or symptoms alert the clinician to the disease. Unfortunately, symptoms typically begin when the cancer is in an advanced stage. When esophageal cancer is suspected, healthcare providers perform a detailed medical history to check for possible risk factors and learn about symptoms the patient is having, physical exam, and imaging tests such as a CT scan or barium swallow, which utilizes liquid called barium to outline the esophagus on X-ray.

Treatment Options

After esophageal cancer is diagnosed and its stage is determined, a team of physicians, nurses and other healthcare providers will discuss treatment options with the patient. Treatment considerations include the patients overall health and the extent or stage of the cancer. In general, the main types of treatment are:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Endoscopic treatments

Intestinal Cancer

Intestinal cancer occurs in the small intestine; this is the organ that moves food from the stomach to the colon. Similarly to colon cancer, intestinal cancer likely begins as a polyp. The cause of intestinal cancer has yet to be determined, but known risk factors include smoking, drinking alcohol, Celiac disease and Crohn’s disease. Symptoms of intestinal cancer are vague and include abdominal pain, unintended weight loss, weakness, fatigue and low red blood cell count (i.e., anemia).

Diagnosis

If intestinal cancer is suspected, a healthcare provider will use one or more methods to determine if a patient has the disease. A detailed medical history that focuses on abdominal symptoms, physical exam and blood tests will be performed. Visualizing the intestine is an important step to diagnosis and can be done with CT scan or barium swallow, which utilizes liquid called barium to outline the intestine in X-ray.

Treatment Options

After intestinal cancer is diagnosed and its stage is determined, a team of physicians, nurses and other healthcare providers will discuss treatment options with the patient. Treatment considerations include the size and location of the tumor, spread to surrounding tissues, symptoms and the overall health status of the patient. In general, the main types of treatment are:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy

Stomach Cancer

Stomach cancer, also referred to as gastric cancer, is a cancer that starts in the stomach. These cancers are slow growing and rarely cause symptoms early on. The cause of stomach cancer is unknown, but factors that put people at risk include Helicobacter pylori infection, diet high in smoked foods, salted fish and meats, and pickled vegetables and smoking. When signs and symptoms do occur, they include poor appetite, unintended weight loss, abdominal pain, heartburn, nausea, vomiting and a low red blood cell count (i.e., anemia).

Diagnosis

Stomach cancer is usually found when a patient sees their doctor or healthcare provider because of signs or symptoms they are experiencing. To determine if a person has stomach cancer, a healthcare provider will perform a detailed medical history and physical exam. If needed, other tests will be performed including an upper endoscopy, the main test used to diagnose stomach cancer. If abnormal tissue is seen, physicians are able take tissue biopsies during the procedure.

Treatment Options

After stomach cancer is diagnosed and its stage is determined, a team of physicians, nurses, and other healthcare providers will discuss treatment options with the patient. Often times, the best treatment approach for stomach cancer uses two or more of the following treatment methods.

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Radiation therapy