Gastrointestinal Cancers: Screening, Treatments & More

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Gastrointestinal cancers can be some of the most deadly types of tumors, but screening and treatments can make a difference.

Here's a rundown on the types of gastrointestinal cancers, along with their symptoms, treatments and tips for prevention.

Gastrointestinal (GI) cancer includes all cancers in your digestive tract organs. They are named in terms of the tissue where the disease started, not where it ended.

Types of gastrointestinal cancer

  • Ampullary cancer
  • Anal cancer
  • Bile duct cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Gallbladder cancer
  • Gastroesophageal cancer
  • Hepatocellular cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Rectal cancer
  • Small intestine cancer
  • Stomach cancer

Gastrointestinal cancer diagnosis

The goal of screening tests is to detect cancers early in asymptomatic patients. Examples of screening tests are colonoscopy, endoscopy, endoscopic ultrasound and imaging. A primary care doctor often helps to determine which screening tests are indicated for which patients based upon a patient’s age, gender, medical history, family history, social history and genetics. For patients who present with symptoms, the first step is often seeking out a primary care physician who will order appropriate labs and tests to work up the symptoms. If a cancer is diagnosed, the primary care physician will then refer a patient to the appropriate specialist(s).

Gastrointestinal cancer treatments

The treatment of cancer is a personalized decision determined by the patient and care team using evidence-based medicine and national/international guidelines. To determine the best treatment options, a multidisciplinary team made up of a medical oncologist, surgical oncologist, radiation oncologist, interventional radiologist, dietician, therapist, palliative care physician, and/or others may aid in the care of a patient with GI cancer.

The multidisciplinary team works early on to establish what kind of cancer a patient has, the stage of the cancer and where it has spread. Based upon this information, the team will determine if the goal of treatment is curative or palliative. While palliative care can be helpful no matter what the goal of treatment is to aid in symptom management, palliative treatment is an approach aimed at optimizing quality of life and relieving symptoms without a focus on the cause of the symptoms or its treatment. The multidisciplinary team will work together to come up with the best treatment plan for each patient using the following modalities of treatment:

  • Chemotherapy – Medicines that destroy cancer cells and stop their ability to grow
  • Targeted therapy – Drugs that are targeted at specific genetic pathway mutations that may be important for a given cancer’s growth and survival. This type of treatment blocks the growth and spread of cancer cells while limiting damage to healthy cells
  • Immunotherapy – Immunotherapy is a category of anti-cancer therapy that works by enlisting the body’s immune system to help detect and destroy cancer cells
  • Surgery – Surgery helps patients with localized cancers that have a chance to be cured by surgically removing the cancerous area(s)
  • Radiation therapy – Radiation therapy uses powerful beams of energy to destroy localized cancer cells and prevent them from growing. The beams can come from X-rays, protons or other sources

Gastrointestinal cancer prevention

The best thing is to never get a gastrointestinal cancer at all. Here's what doctors, like those at Duke Cancer Center, suggest:

  • Stay active
  • See your primary care physician regularly, who will keep you up to date on recommended screenings
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid smoking
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Be aware of genetic risk factors and family history
  • Know the symptoms and see a doctor if you have concerns

Patients with GI cancer are encouraged to participate in clinical trials. This allows a patient access to novel treatments that they may not have otherwise been a candidate for and helps advance knowledge about how to treat GI cancers better.

What This Means for You

A diagnosis of gastrointestinal cancer can be scary, but one expert guides you through symptoms, treatments and lifestyle changes you can make to lower your risk.

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