Stomach cancer starts in the upper digestive tract, which includes the stomach and esophagus. It develops when normal cells within these organs grow out of control and form a tumor. People with stomach cancer may experience a range of symptoms, including pain and vomiting.
If you have these symptoms, you should see your health care provider right away. Your provider will review your medical history and do a physical exam. They will feel your stomach for any lumpiness or tenderness. They will also ask about your family history of stomach cancer and other diseases you have, as well as your lifestyle habits, such as whether you smoke. These factors can help your provider spot stomach cancer early, when it is often easiest to treat.
Your provider will use several tests to diagnose stomach cancer and find out how far it has spread. This process is called staging. Your provider will use the results of these tests to make treatment decisions.
Some of the same tests used to diagnose stomach cancer or find out its stage are done from time to time to check on your treatment and see if the cancer has recurred (come back). These follow-up tests are sometimes called surveillance tests.
For most types of stomach cancer, your doctor will order imaging tests to make pictures of your stomach and surrounding tissues. These include computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). You may be asked to drink a liquid with a dye that highlights your stomach before these tests. Then, you will lie on a table while the images are taken. You may also need to have a procedure where your doctor puts a thin, flexible tube with a small camera down your throat to look inside your stomach. For this test, you may need to drink 1 to 2 pints of a contrast dye.
Your care team might also want to do a chest X-ray to check for signs of the cancer spreading to your lungs. They might also order a PET scan, in which you are given a special kind of radioactive sugar that collects in places with cancer cells and shows them on the pictures. A PET scan can also be combined with a CT scan to provide more detailed information about your condition, called a PET/CT scan.
Surgery to remove the tumor and some surrounding healthy tissue is a common treatment for stomach cancer. In some cases, your provider might also recommend chemotherapy to kill cancer cells that remain or radiation therapy, in which a specialist uses beams of high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells.
You may also be a candidate for a new type of treatment that encourages your body’s own immune system to fight the cancer cells. This is called immunotherapy. It is typically recommended for advanced stomach cancer that hasn’t responded to other treatments. Your health care provider can explain if this treatment is a good option for you.