Q1: What is stomach cancer?

A. There are two main types of stomach cancer: called the intestinal and diffuse types. Intestinal stomach cancer is more common amongst older patients and patients from ‘high-risk’ groups (eg the Japanese and Koreans). Diffuse stomach cancer is found more frequently in women and people with blood group A. This variety of stomach cancer is more difficult to treat.

Q2: How common is stomach cancer?

A. Stomach cancer is more common than most people realise. Each year there are 59,300 cases in the USA, 2,800 in Canada, 2,000 in Australia and 9,100 in the UK. However, it used to be much more common in the west. Fifty years ago it was the most common type of cancer. Now it is number five or six in most western countries. Currently, the incidence is much higher in places like Korea, Japan, Russia and some South American countries. Worldwide, there are nearly 800,000 cases each year.

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Q3: Who is most likely to get stomach cancer?

A. Like many cancers, this type is most common in older people. Few cases occur below 50 years of age and the highest rates are in men and women over 70. Men are twice as likely to get stomach cancer as women. The risk of stomach cancer also depends a lot on where you live

Q4: What causes stomach cancer?

A. The function of the stomach and the wide differences in stomach cancer rates between different countries make it almost certain that the food we eat is – or was – a major factor in the cause. The likely reason that the number of cases has dropped over the last fifty years is that refrigeration of food became common and people ate less pickled, salted, smoked and cured foods.

Q5: Who is at risk of stomach cancer?

  • Diet – eating a diet high in preserved foods has been linked with higher rates of stomach cancer (see above).
  • Gender – stomach cancer is almost twice as common in men as in women.
  • Other diseases – people with pernicious anaemia or achlorhydria are more likely to get stomach cancer.
  • Infections- stomach infections by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, which is a major cause of stomach ulcers, is also associated with a much higher risk of stomach cancer.
  • Smoking – this is also known to increase the risk of getting stomach cancer.

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Q6: Does stomach cancer run in families?

A. A few cases of stomach cancer (about one in ten) appear to run in the family. We do not yet understand which genes are involved, so genetic testing is not yet possible.

Q7: What are the symptoms of stomach cancer?

A. Early stomach cancer often has no symptoms or merely causes a stomach ache.   As it becomes more advanced, it can cause loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, severe stomach pain and weight loss.  Since many of these symptoms are also caused by food poisoning, stomach ulcers and several other conditions, all too often stomach cancers are not diagnosed until they are quite advanced.

Q8: How is stomach cancer diagnosed?

A. Normally, a procedure called endoscopy is used to see the inside of the stomach. Under sedation, a thin fibre-optic tube is passed down the throat. The inside of the stomach is lit up and photographed. Any growths can be spotted relatively easily by this method. Sometimes, more sophisticated endoscopes are used which can take a small sample of the stomach lining or even take an ultrasound scan from the inside of the stomach.

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