Felt heartburn or bloated after eating? How about belly pain? While these symptoms are more likely to be caused by a medical condition other than cancer, they can also be warning signs of stomach cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 26,000 people will be diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2022, and nearly 11,100 people are expected to die from it. Below, we’ll discuss stomach cancer, its warning signs, and tips to lower your risk.
Stomach cancer rarely causes specific symptoms in the early stages. Symptoms might not be noticeable until the tumor has reached an advanced stage.
Many symptoms of stomach cancer are common in other non-cancerous conditions like an infection or ulcer.
Warning signs of stomach cancer include discomfort or pain above your belly button, persistent heartburn, burping a lot, nausea, and vomiting.
Talk to your healthcare provider if you feel full after eating just a few bites, have a loss of appetite, or have unexplained weight loss.
Reduce your risk of stomach cancer by maintaining a healthy weight, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, limiting processed foods, and avoiding smoking.
What is stomach cancer?
Stomach cancer – also called gastric cancer – occurs when abnormal cells grow in the stomach. People often say they have a “stomach ache” when they have pain in the belly area. The medical term for the belly area is the abdomen. The stomach is actually one of the organs of the abdomen.
When you swallow food, it first goes through the esophagus – a tube that joins the throat and stomach. Once in the stomach, food is mixed with gastric juice to begin digestion and then moved to the small intestine.
Anyone can develop stomach cancer, although it tends to be more common in people in their 60s or 70s. The risk of developing stomach cancer is also higher in men than in women. The most common type of stomach cancer is adenocarcinoma.
There’s no screening test for stomach cancer in the U.S., and people tend to be diagnosed with the disease in its advanced stages. The good news is, in the U.S., cases of stomach cancer have been dropping over the past 10 years.
11 Warning signs and symptoms of stomach cancer
In the early stages, stomach cancer rarely causes specific symptoms. Symptoms might not be noticeable until the tumor is advanced. Moreover, many warning signs of stomach cancer can be mistaken for other non-cancerous conditions, like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or a stomach virus.
Nonetheless, it’s important to become familiar with the following warning signs to watch out for:
1. Pain in your abdomen
Abdominal pain doesn’t always mean you have stomach cancer. Many conditions can cause pain in your belly. A tumor in your stomach may cause vague discomfort or pain above your belly button. The pain may worsen or become more persistent as the tumor grows.
2. Persistent heartburn or indigestion
Although these symptoms are often associated with an ulcer or GERD, they can be warning signs of stomach cancer.
3. Nausea or vomiting
These are common symptoms that can be caused by a wide range of minor or serious conditions. But nausea or vomiting can be warning signs of stomach cancer too. In some instances, stomach cancer may cause vomiting that contains blood. You may feel nauseous and vomit solid foods right after eating.
4. Trouble swallowing
You may feel like food is “sticking” in your throat or on the way down to your stomach. You may also feel pain or a burning sensation when you swallow.
5. Feeling full after a small meal
You may feel full after a few bites of food. This feeling of fullness may often be in your upper abdomen. You may also feel bloated after eating.
6. Poor or loss of appetite
You may not feel hungry when you would expect to be hungry or feel full without even eating. Other symptoms, like unintentional weight loss, may accompany this warning sign.
7. Unexplained weight loss
You may be losing weight without trying. This weight loss often occurs with other symptoms like feeling full early, poor appetite, nausea, or vomiting.
8. Swelling in your belly
Other non-cancerous conditions can cause swelling in your belly. However, in its advanced stages, a stomach tumor may cause fluid build-up in your abdomen.
9. Dark stools
Unusually dark or black stools may be caused by bleeding in the digestive tract. You may notice dark stools if you have a stomach tumor that is bleeding.
10. Feeling very weak or tired
As a stomach tumor grows, you may feel tired and weak. This is usually a result of having too few red blood cells (anemia) from excessive bleeding from the tumor.
11. Yellowing of the skin and eyes
The medical term for this symptom is jaundice which may be present if a stomach tumor is advanced and spreads to the liver.
Tips to lower your risk of stomach cancer
Certain risk factors for stomach cancer cannot be changed. These include:
- Being a man or assigned male at birth.
- Being older.
- Being Hispanic, African American, Native American, and Asian/Pacific Islander.
- Having had previous stomach surgery.
- Having a type of non-cancerous growth in the stomach (polyp).
- Having Menetrier disease.
- Having an inherited gene mutation that increases your risk of stomach cancer.
- Having a family history of stomach cancer.
- Having common variable immune deficiency (CVID).
- Having been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
While stomach cancer is not 100% preventable, there are steps you can take to lower your risk:
Live a healthy lifestyle. Obesity increases your risk of some type of stomach cancer. Being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting regular exercise may reduce your risk of stomach cancer.
Limit processed foods. This includes cured or charcoaled meats and foods that have been preserved by salting, smoking, or pickling.
Make healthy meal choices. Include fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet to help lower your risk of stomach cancer.
Avoid smoking. Smoking is linked to many types of cancer, including stomach cancer. Quitting tobacco can reduce your cancer risk.
Limit alcohol intake. Drinking alcohol regularly has been linked to an increased risk of stomach cancer. Avoiding or limiting alcohol intake can lower your risk.
Treat Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection. This bacterium is one of the main causes of stomach cancer. If you have an H. pylori infection, talk to your healthcare provider about your risk factors for stomach cancer, such as a family member with stomach cancer. Although the research is inconclusive about who should be treated, treatment is available.
About 72% of people diagnosed with stomach cancer live longer than 5 years after diagnosis if the tumor has not spread beyond the stomach. If the tumor has reached nearby lymph nodes, that number decreases to 33%. And only about 6% of people with stomach cancer that has spread to other parts of the body are expected to be alive 5 years after diagnosis.
While the rates of stomach cancer are decreasing in the U.S., this disease tends to be caught in the late stages. Be mindful of the warning signs and ways to reduce your risk of stomach cancer. Talk to your healthcare provider about your symptoms for further investigation and discuss your risk factors.