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What is Stomach Cancer?

To understand stomach cancer, it’s first important to understand what cancer is: the production of abnormal cells.

The body is programmed to routinely replenish cells in different organs. As normal cells age or get damaged, they die off. New cells take their place. This is what’s supposed to happen. Abnormal cell growth refers to a buildup of extra cells. This happens when:

  • New cells form even though the body doesn’t need them or
  • Old, damaged cells don’t die off.

These extra cells accumulate to form a tissue mass, lump, or growth called a tumor. These abnormal cells can destroy normal body tissue and spread through the bloodstream and lymphatic system.

Stomach cancer is also called gastric cancer. Your stomach is one of many organs in your abdomen where cancer cells can start.

The mucosa is the innermost layer of your stomach. It is where stomach acid and digestive juices are made. Usually cancer starts in the mucosa. From there it grows out into other layers of your stomach.

It spreads in different ways:

  • Through the wall of your stomach and into nearby organs.
  • To lymph nodes nearby and then through your lymph system.
  • Through your bloodstream, leaving cancer cells in organs like your liver and lungs. This happens in advanced cases.

Stomach cancer is usually slow growing.

Most stomach cancers are adenocarcinomas. To better understand what an adenocarcinoma is, let’s look at the word. Adeno means gland. Carcinoma is a malignant tumor.

Although these tumors are malignant, they all generally start from adenomas. These are polyps that are not cancerous. The bigger the adenoma is, the more likely it is to become cancerous.

Less common types of stomach cancer are:

  • Lymphoma
  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST)
  • Carcinoid

In some cases, the growth in your stomach may be benign.

Benign means not cancerous. A benign tumor can get larger but does not spread to other tissues or organs.

Malignant means cancerous. A malignant tumor’s cells can invade nearby tissue and lymph nodes and then spread to other organs. These cells are destructive.

Benign tumors:
  • Can be removed
  • Usually don’t grow back
  • Are rarely fatal
  • Don’t spread to other tissues or body parts

Malignant tumors:

  • Can often be removed
  • Sometimes grow back
  • Can invade other tissues and organs and cause damage
  • Can spread to other body parts
  • Can be fatal

With Your Healthcare Team

When going through cancer treatment, your healthcare team is very important. Your healthcare team may include your oncologists, surgeon, nurse navigator, a dietitian, a social worker, or other medical professionals. Every member plays an important role. Use the tips below for talking with your healthcare team:

  • Establish your main point of contact.
    • Your main point of contact will probably be a nurse navigator, but it may be another member of your healthcare team. Who should you contact first with questions?
  • You need to always be open and honest with your healthcare team about your physical and emotional well-being.
  • Do not be afraid to ask questions.
  • Cancer is usually not a medical emergency. There is time to ask your healthcare team any questions you may have, and to consider your treatment options.
  • Write your questions down before your appointments. Take a pen and paper to write down the answers.

Before beginning treatment, ask your healthcare team the following:

  • What are all my treatment options?
  • What are the long term and short term side effects of treatment, and how can I manage them?
  • Will my fertility or ability to have children be affected?
  • Am I eligible for clinical trials?
  • If you develop any new problems or symptoms during treatment, tell your healthcare team immediately. You are not complaining. This is valuable information for your doctors.
  • Do not change your diet, start an exercise program, or take any new medications, including vitamins and supplements, during treatment without talking to your healthcare team first.

With Your Caregiver

Your primary caregiver may be with you when you receive your diagnosis. Your primary caregiver may be your spouse, partner, adult child, parent, or friend. Your primary caregiver is the person who may come with you to appointments, take care of you after surgery or treatment, and support you throughout your cancer journey.

  • Everyone reacts to the news of cancer differently. You may feel upset, shocked, or angry. It may take you some time to process the information. Your caregiver may or may not react the same way you do. Even if your caregiver does not react the same way you do, it does not mean that he or she does not care deeply.
  • Establish your role and your caregiver’s role early. For example, will your caregiver be the one scheduling most of your appointments, or do you prefer to take an active role? Find what works best for you and your caregiver.
  • Be open and honest with each other about how you both feel. Overly positive attitudes may hinder honest communication. It’s okay to be upset.
  • Encourage your caregiver to take time to care for his or her own physical and emotional well-being. Being a caregiver comes with its own hardships.
  • If your primary caregiver is your spouse or partner, your intimate and physical relationship may change.

With Your Children

Children are very perceptive, no matter their age. While you may wish to protect your children by not telling them about your diagnosis, even young children may be able to tell that something is wrong. Not knowing what is wrong may cause them more stress and anxiety. Here are some tips to talk to your children and teens about your cancer diagnosis:

  • Wait until your emotions are under control and decide what to say ahead of time.
  • Tell the truth and answer questions honestly. Depending on your children’s ages, it may not be appropriate to give them all the details, but do be truthful.
  • Let them know what to expect. For example, let them know that after surgery you will need a lot of rest and may need to stay in the hospital. If your chemotherapy may cause you to lose your hair, let them know. Keep your children in the loop as much as possible.
  • Explain to your children, especially younger children, that they cannot “catch” cancer.
  • Let your children know that it is okay to cry or be upset. This may be especially important for your teens to hear.
  • Tell teachers, babysitters, and others with responsibilities with and around your kids about your diagnosis in case they see behavior changes you may need to know about.
  • Maintain normal schedules as much as possible.
  • Let your kids help. Allow them to help with chores, and let them know that their help is important. Teens may want to take an active caregiver role. Let them do so, at appropriate levels.
  • Look for support groups in your area. Many places offer support groups for children and teens whose parents have a cancer diagnosis.
  • Know when to seek professional help. If your child begins to demonstrate unusual behavior such as angry outbursts, nightmares, or poor grades in school, ask your healthcare team for a recommendation for a counselor.

With Family and Friends

You may choose to keep your cancer journey private, or you may choose to share your story with others. The choice is yours. Remember when family, friends, coworkers, or other acquaintances ask about your diagnosis, they are genuinely concerned about your well-being. You can share with them as much or as little information as you like. These suggestions may help you talk about your diagnosis:

  • Decide how much information you want to share before you start telling people about your diagnosis.
  • If you chose to keep your journey private, make sure to let people know that you appreciate their concern, but you hope they respect your privacy.
  • Choose someone close to you, like your caregiver, to spread the word about updates and treatment progress. After a long day of treatment, you may not feel like calling and texting people, but your friends and family will probably want to know how you are.
  • If you want to share your story, consider starting an email chain or a Facebook group.

This way you can update everyone with one message instead of needing to answer a lot of emails and phone calls.

You can also create your own private website at MyLifeLine.org.

  • When people offer to help with things, let them. Your family and friends could cook dinner, drive you to an appointment, or babysit.
  • If you lose your hair due to treatment or have visible surgical scars, strangers may ask about your diagnosis. Have a response prepared. Again, you may share as little or as much as you like.
How Stomach Cancer Spreads

Before you can understand how stomach cells can spread, it's important to have a clear picture of the anatomy of your stomach.

Stomach Cancer Diagram