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What Is Stomach Cancer?

Cancer of the stomach, or gastric cancer, is a disease in which stomach cells become malignant (cancerous) and grow out of control, forming a tumor. Almost all stomach cancers (95%) start in the glandular tissue that lines the stomach. The tumor may spread along the stomach wall or may grow directly through the wall and shed cells into the bloodstream or lymphatic system. Once beyond the stomach, cancer can spread to other organs.
Stomach cancers are classified according to the type of tissue in which they originate.

  • Adenocarcinomas – the most common -- start in the glandular stomach lining.
  • Lymphomas develop from lymphocytes, a type of blood cell involved in the immune system.
  • Sarcomas involve the connective tissue (muscle, fat, or blood vessels).

Although the number of stomach cancer cases has declined over the past 60 years, it is still the seventh leading cause of cancer death in the United States. The exact cause of stomach cancer is unknown, but most are believed to result from exposure to carcinogens (various cancer-causing agents), especially nitrates -- substances found in prepared foods (especially meats) that are dried, smoked, salted, or pickled. Carcinogens cause errors in the genetic code that controls growth and repair of cells.
Various medical conditions are associated with an increased risk of developing stomach cancer. These include:

  • Gastritis
  • Pernicious anemia
  • Gastric polyps
  • Chronic gastric ulcer

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection of the stomach lining is associated with gastric lymphoma. H pylori is a bacterium that infects the lining of the stomach and causes chronic inflammation and ulcers. There is an increased risk of stomach cancer in people who use tobacco or drink alcoholic beverages regularly.
People who work in certain industries are also at greater risk. This includes those in the coal mining, nickel refining, and rubber and timber processing industries, and those exposed to asbestos fibers.
Stomach cancer is most often seen in men over 55. It is more common in Japan, Korea, parts of Eastern Europe, and Latin America than in the United States and Canada. This is thought to be related to the common diet in these countries, which consists of nitrate-containing, salted foods -- especially meat and fish.
Stomach cancer can often be cured if it is found and treated at an early stage. Unfortunately, the outlook is poor if the cancer is already advanced.

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JAN J. SHIM, M.D. 4 EAST 88TH STREET, SUITE 1A NEW YORK, NY 10128 TEL: (212) 535-5020