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Stomach Cancer

What Is Stomach Cancer?

Last modified: 
17/04/2013 - 15:17

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

Stomach cancer is a disease in which normal cells in the stomach tissues become cancerous and grow out of control.

Experts have been unable to define one primary cause for stomach cancer, but many factors seem to be involved. Some research suggests that stomach ulcers or stomach polyps can lead to cancer.

  • Stomach ulcers are raw or inflamed areas of the stomach lining and also are called gastric ulcers
  • Stomach polyps are noncancerous round growths that project into the stomach cavity

Environmental factors or infection by the bacteria Helicobacter pylori may be possible causes. Poor diet has also been implicated.

The symptoms of stomach cancer in the early stages can be vague and include indigestion, discomfort, nausea, or heartburn. Early symptoms are also symptomatic of many other gastrointestinal conditions (pertaining to the digestive tract), so having symptoms does not necessarily mean stomach cancer.

Treatment varies by individual, but may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, biological therapy, or participation in clinical trials.

Facts About Stomach Cancer

  • Stomach cancer rarely affects people under age 40 and is most often found in those over the age of 55.
  • Stomach cancer causes about 15,000 deaths per year in the United States.
  • Stomach cancer is the seventh most common cause of death from cancer in the United States.
  • Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the US. (The first is heart disease).
  • There has been a dramatic decrease in the worldwide incidence of stomach cancer over the past 50 years.

About The Stomach

The main function of the stomach is to complete the breakdown of food that begins in the mouth, preparing food to be absorbed into the body. It is also a storage organ enabling food to be eaten several times each day rather than more often.

The stomach is a hollow, J-shaped organ on the left side of the abdomenunder the diaphragm (the muscle below the lungs that separates the chest from the abdomen). After it is eaten, food travels from the mouth to the stomach through a tube called the esophagus.

In the stomach the process of breaking down food is completed before nutrients from food enter the duodenum (the first portion of the small intestine, attached to the stomach), small intestine and large intestine (colon). Nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream in the duodenum and intestines.

The stomach is flexible, allowing it to expand when food is eaten. The average capacity of the stomach in an adult is about 3 pints (1.5 liters).

The stomach wall contains layers of muscle lined by cells that secrete gastric juice, or gastric acid. This substance contains:

  • Pepsin, an enzyme that breaks down protein.
  • Hydrochloric acid, an acid that kills bacteria, and which creates the most suitable environment for pepsin.
  • Intrinsic factor, which is essential for vitamin B12 absorption.

The stomach lining also contains glands that secrete mucus, which provides a barrier to prevent the stomach from digesting itself.

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Stomach Cancer

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From Andrew Maynard - Chair of the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Sciences, with help from David Faulkner - 2013 Master of Public Health graduate.