The Basics of Stomach Cancer
Learn about the risk factors and symptoms of gastric cancer.

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Picture of man with stomach being probed The Basics of Stomach Cancer

Each year, more than 20,000 people in the United States learn they have cancer of the stomach (also called gastric cancer). Stomach cancer is one of the most common cancers worldwide, but in the U.S., the rate has dropped over the past 60 years. Experts think this is due to the rise of refrigeration for food storage. This meant that people could eat more fresh foods and fewer salted and smoked foods, which are linked to stomach cancer.

The most common type of stomach cancer is adenocarcinoma. This is a type of cancer that starts in the cells that line organs. Most stomach cancers start in the cells that form the innermost lining of the stomach (the mucosa).

What are the symptoms?
Stomach cancer can cause symptoms such as:

  • Discomfort or pain in the abdomen
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bloated feeling after eating
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Vomiting blood
  • Bloody or black, tarry stools

Any of these problems could be caused by a less-serious problem. But if you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor. You may be referred to a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating digestive problems.

What are the risk factors for stomach cancer?
Scientists don't know why some people develop stomach cancer and others don't. But they do know that some people are more likely than others to develop it. Things that make a person more likely to get a disease are called risk factors.

Risk factors for stomach cancer include:

  • Aging. The rate of stomach cancer increases after age 50. Most people who are diagnosed with it are 70 or older.
  • Male gender. It is more common in men than in women.
  • Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection. Helicobacter pylori, a type of bacteria that often lives in the stomach lining, is a major cause of stomach cancer. H. pylori bacteria can also cause stomach (peptic) ulcers. People with H. pylori infection are more likely to get stomach cancer than those who aren't infected. But most people who have this infection never get stomach cancer.
  • Smoking. People who smoke are almost twice as likely to get stomach cancer as those who don't smoke.
  • Diet. A diet high in smoked, dried, salted, or pickled foods has been linked to stomach cancer. Cured meats, such as ham, bacon, and processed meats contain nitrates and nitrites. In your stomach, these substances can be converted into compounds that raise your risk of stomach cancer.
  • Race. Stomach cancer is more common among Asian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and African Americans than white Americans.
  • Previous stomach surgery. Having part of your stomach removed may lead to higher levels of nitrite-producing bacteria and bile in your stomach. This raises the risk for stomach cancer.
  • Stomach polyps. Stomach polyps are small bumps or growths of the lining of the stomach. Most types of polyps do not raise the risk of stomach cancer. Sometimes, though, adenomatous polyps (or adenomas) develop into stomach cancer.
  • Pernicious anemia.This is caused by a lack of a substance needed to absorb vitamin B-12. This can lead to vitamin B-12 deficiency and a low red blood cell count (anemia). People with this condition have a slightly higher risk for stomach cancer.
  • Family history of stomach cancer. You're more likely to get stomach cancer if first-degree relatives (parents, brothers, or sisters) have had the disease. Some rare types of cancer run in families.
  • Environmental exposure. People who work in the coal, rubber, and metal industries have higher-than-average risks of stomach cancer.

Are there ways to prevent stomach cancer?
Avoid or limit smoked and pickled foods, salted meats and fish, and foods that contain nitrates and nitrites, such as ham, bacon, lunch meats, and corned beef.

  • Eat a diet rich in plant-based foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals, and beans.
  • Limit alcohol to 1 or 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women, or cut out alcohol entirely.
  • Don't smoke. Smoking is linked to many types of cancer, including stomach cancer.
By Lila Havens, Staff Writer
Created on 02/11/2002
Updated on 05/25/2011
  • Gunderson LL, Donohue JH, Alberts SR. Cancer of the stomach. In: Abeloff MD, Armitage JO, Niederhuber JE, Kastan MB, McKenna WG, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 4th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2008.
  • National Cancer Institute. What you need to know about stomach cancer.
  • American Cancer Society. Stomach cancer.
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