Stomach Cancer

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Stomach cancer is not nearly as common as it once was, at least not in most industrialized nations, but a diagnosis of such can be a frightening turn of events. Many cases of stomach cancer can lead to death in a short period of time because of the advanced nature of the disease. The good news is that this type of cancer, in most cases, is very preventable if we maintain good health through a lifestyle of wellness.

What is Stomach Cancer?

Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, is a disease that is the result of cancerous cells in the lining of the stomach that abnormally reproduce in an uncontrollable manner and form malignant masses called tumors. Stomach cancer is found two to three times more often in men than in women, and is normally not diagnosed before the age of 40. The average age of onset is 60.

Stomach cancer is still prevalent in many parts of the world, and is in fact a leading cause of cancer-related deaths in countries such as Hungary, Poland, Japan, Korea, Chile, Costa Rica, and other Central and South American countries. However, once fairly common here in the United States, the incidence of stomach cancer has declined dramatically in the U.S. and many Western European countries in the last sixty years. The most likely reasons for this are increased refrigeration of food, and a lower consumption of pickled, salted, and smoked foods in these developed nations.

Stomach cancer still occurs in the United States, with approximately 23,000 new cases annually, along with about 14,000 deaths each year in the U.S. But the numbers are way down due to more effective and safer means of preserving food and avoiding bacterial infections of the stomach and other factors related to food preservation that are major factors in stomach cancer.

Many types of stomach cancers are slow growing, and it may take years before they are discovered. But, as with many cancers, there are few discernible symptoms in the early stages, and unfortunately most stomach cancers are not discovered before they have spread beyond the stomach into other parts of the body. By the time diagnosis is made, many patients will be beyond help from typical allopathic treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. Death from stomach cancer can often occur quickly, within weeks or months of diagnosis. Fortunately, most stomach cancers can be prevented by wise and healthy diet and lifestyle choices.

A short anatomy lesson regarding the stomach will help us better understand how cancer affects it. Our stomach is a muscular sac shaped somewhat like a “J” that is located in the upper left quadrant of the abdomen, just below the ribs. The stomach walls are composed of strong muscular tissue that are responsible for mixing our food with glandular acids and enzymes that make digestion possible. The delicate lining of the stomach is protected by a thick mucous that is designed to coat the walls of the stomach. The stomach is divided into five sections. The first three are collectively referred to as the “proximal stomach,” and this is where the digestive juices and enzymes are produced. The fourth section is where the mixing of food and gastric juices takes place. The fifth and final portion of the stomach acts as a valve that controls the delivery of stomach contents into the small intestine. Together the fourth and fifth parts are called the “distal stomach.”  When analyzing a case of stomach cancer it is often important to know which part or parts of the stomach the tumors have invaded in order to make accurate prognosis and treatment decisions.

There are four main types of stomach cancer:

  • Adenocarcinomas:  These tumors begin in the glandular cells of the lining of the stomach. They are responsible for the vast majority of stomach cancers, accounting for up to 95% of all cases.
  • Lymphomas:  This type attacks immune system tissues located in the walls of the stomach. Some of these lymphomas can be very aggressive, while others are slow growing. One common type of slow-growing lymphoma is called mucosa associated lymphoid tissue (MALT), and is usually caused by one of the major triggers for stomach cancer, H. pylori bacteria (more information below).
  • Carcinoid tumors:  These originate in the cells of the stomach that produce hormones, and account for only a small percentage of stomach cancer cases. Carcinoid tumors are usually slow growing, and do not tend to metastasize (spread) very easily.
  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) are quite rare tumors that are related to the autonomic nervous system. These tumors can form in the stomach, but may also appear in the rectum or esophagus. They are typically the result of a genetic mutation.

What Are the Symptoms of Stomach Cancer?

One of the earliest indicators of possible stomach cancer is blood in your stool. This is usually found during a routine screening called a fecal occult blood test that is often given to test for other conditions such as colorectal cancer. The test can reveal hidden amounts of blood in the stool that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Microscopic internal bleeding may be related to stomach cancer, but it could also be associated with quite a few other conditions.  If the internal bleeding is extensive enough, it could also produce anemia, which can be confirmed by blood tests or may manifest itself in unexplained fatigue due to low iron levels caused by the loss of red blood cells. Other early signs of stomach cancer can include abdominal pain or heartburn, both of which are common to many other illnesses, and both of which may be temporarily relieved through the use of antacids or by putting some food in the stomach. This is why stomach cancer is not often discovered in the earliest stages.

Once the cancer has reached a more advanced stage, symptoms will vary depending on which part of the stomach the tumor(s) are in, and their size. Some of the more common signs include:

  • Persistent abdominal pain or discomfort that is not relieved by antacids or eating.
  • Worsening discomfort after eating.
  • Vomiting after meals
  • Vomiting blood
  • Black, tarry stools
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Feeling full even after eating small amounts of food
  • Chronic fatigue

One or more of these symptoms may or may not mean stomach cancer. For example, many of these signs could indicate a case of peptic ulcers. However, taking the seriousness of stomach cancer into account, it would be a good idea to look into it further. As with any cancer, the earlier it is detected, the better the chance of successfully beating it.

What Causes Stomach Cancer?

Most causes of stomach cancer are avoidable, other than a few rare genetic triggers. The leading risk factors for developing stomach cancer are as follows:

  • H. pylori bacteria infections:  Most of the people on this planet, especially in less developed countries, have a corkscrew shaped bacteria present in the lining of their stomachs. It is primarily transmitted via poor sanitation practices, and is typically contracted in contaminated drinking water. H. pylori is the primary cause of stomach ulcers. Most folks with H. pylori related ulcers do not develop stomach cancer, but the presence of H. pylori does increase risk for stomach cancer. Most people carry H. pylori from childhood, and long-term presence of this bacterial infection in the stomach can lead to precancerous changes in the stomach lining. One such condition is called atrophic gastritis, which destroys acid producing glands in stomach. Abnormally low levels of stomach acids may lead to stomach cancer because the stomach is unable to flush out certain toxins that are normally broken down by stomach acid.
  • Nitrates and nitrites:  Consumption of foods that contain these compounds (typically lunch meats, hot dogs, and cured meats like ham and bacon) is a huge risk for stomach cancer. When combined with other compounds in the stomach, known carcinogens called N-nitroso compounds are formed which have been clearly linked to stomach cancer.
  • Red meat:  A diet high in red meats, especially if they are well-done or barbecued, has been clearly identified in many studies as a contributing factor in stomach cancer.
  • Salted, smoked, or pickled foods:  Many people in certain parts of the world still consume a lot of these types of foods, even though improvements in refrigeration and other food preserving techniques has made this much less necessary. Some of this is just cultural. However, many of these types of foods also contain high amounts of nitrates and/or nitrites as well. Japan and Korea have much higher rates of stomach cancer than the United States (up to 10 times), and they consume large amounts of salted meat and fish, along with pickled vegetables.
  • Rare genetic disorders that are passed through family lines are responsible for a small amount of stomach cancer cases. One example is a condition called familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP).
  • Type A blood:  For reasons that are not known for certain, individuals with type A blood are more prone to stomach cancer.
  • Smoking:  If you smoke, your chance of developing stomach cancer, all other factors being equal, is twice that of a non-smoker.

Treatments for Stomach Cancer:

Stomach cancer is typically attacked by mainstream medicine with the big three weapons: Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. If you have stomach cancer, choose wisely before you make any treatment decisions. At times, depending on the particulars of your condition, one or several of these options may be appropriate. However, you must realize that they can all have significant side effects that you might be better off avoiding. If you do choose any of these routes, please remember that there are excellent alternative and natural medicine therapies that you can use along side of them in order to support your body and minimize the side effects.

How Can Stomach Cancer Be Prevented?

It is quite obvious that the vast majority of stomach cancer can be prevented by wise dietary choices and by not smoking or quitting if you do. Eliminating red meat, or at least greatly limiting it, is probably one of the most powerful steps you can take against stomach cancer (and many other diseases to boot). Stay far away from any foods that contain nitrates or nitrites, especially if they are in foods that are already smoked, pickled, or salted.

These are not hard choices, although it may take a bit of effort to break your tastes for these foods if you consume them consistently. Weigh the benefits and disadvantages, and I’m sure you will see that giving up this type of diet is a much better option. Besides, it will open up a whole new world of healthy, life-giving cuisine to you that you may have never even known existed…

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