Stomach cancer: How to recognize the signs and reduce your risk

By Dr. Joseph Kim

University of Kentucky

While stomach cancer was in the headlines not long ago with the sudden death of musician Toby Keith, the diagnosis is relatively rare. Stomach cancer now accounts for 1.4% of new cancer cases in the U.S., down from nearly 10% from 30 years ago.

With an average age at diagnosis of 68, stomach cancer is more common among older individuals. But it can happen to anyone, so it’s important to understand its symptoms, risk factors and steps you can take to lower your risk.

What are the signs and symptoms of stomach cancer? Early stage stomach cancer often has no symptoms. As the cancer progresses, patients may experience abdominal pain or discomfort, feeling bloated or full after eating small amounts, nausea or vomiting, unexplained weight loss, blood in the stool and difficulty swallowing.

What causes stomach cancer? There are not always clear risk factors for developing stomach cancer, but some factors tend to be associated with the onset of the disease. These include:

  • Heavy consumption of smoked, salted and processed meats
  • A diet low in fruits, vegetables and fiber rich foods
  • Smoking tobacco
  • Being overweight or obese

Other risk factors include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a family history of stomach cancer, Epstein-Barr virus and H. pylori bacterial infection.

What can I do to reduce my risk? While there is no guaranteed way to prevent stomach cancer, you can lower your risk by:

  • Eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Limit processed meats and smoked or salty foods.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise
  • Quitting smoking and limiting alcohol consumption

Can I get screened for stomach cancer? Routine screening isn’t currently recommended for everyone. But if you have certain risk factors, like H. pylori infection or a family history of stomach cancer, talk to your doctor about screening options like upper endoscopy or blood tests.

While treatments have progressed in recent years, the five-year relative survival rate for stomach cancer is 35.7%. Early detection can make all the difference for better treatment outcomes, so don’t hesitate to reach out to your health care provider if you experience any symptoms or have risk factors that warrant screening.

Joseph Kim, M.D., is a surgeon at the UK Markey Cancer Center.

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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