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Gastrointestinal cancer: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help

About gastrointestinal cancer

Gastrointestinal cancer (abnormal growth of cells) refers to the malignancy of the gastrointestinal tract which extends from the mouth to the anus. Gastrointestinal cancer can involve any of the digestive organs like the oesophagus, the stomach, the intestines, the liver, the pancreas, the colon, the rectum and the anus. Malignancy of the small intestine is a very rare occurrence.

Gastrointestinal cancer: Incidence, age and sex

Gastrointestinal cancer is a commonly encountered malignant condition in the industrialized nations. Individuals of more than 50 years of age are more susceptible, though it may occur in any age group. The prevalence of cancer in both sexes depends upon the organ involved. Oesophageal and stomach cancers are more common in men whereas pancreatic cancer has equal prevalence in both men and women.

Signs and symptoms of gastrointestinal cancer: Diagnosis

The clinical features of gastrointestinal cancer depend upon the site of involvement. However, the general clinical features include abdominal pain which may be dull or cramping in quality accompanied with sensation of bloating, loss of appetite, weight loss and anaemia. One of the most distinctive features of gastrointestinal malignancy is recent changes in bowel habit or alternating occurrence of constipation and diarrhoea. Stool disorders like blood and mucous stained faeces or feeling of incomplete evacuation may be complained in malignancy of colon or rectum.

Such features need to be evaluated comprehensively by a gastroenterologist who may conduct investigations like endoscopy (oesophagoscopy or colonoscopy) which helps in direct visualization of interior of gastrointestinal tract. A small specimen of involved tissue can also be taken during endoscopy to study under microscope and confirm the diagnosis. The cancer in later stages may spread to other sites like bones and lungs which may be detected by CT scan.

Causes and prevention of gastrointestinal cancer

The exact cause of gastrointestinal cancer is not very clear. Several disorders may pose a risk for cancer occurrence. For example, repeated reflux of gastric acid juice into oesophagus may damage its wall and make it prone to become cancerous. Likewise inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease damage the large bowel and increase the likelihood of cancer. Certain risk factors like excess alcohol consumption, smoking, genetic predisposition, obesity, low fibre content in diet and increased consumption of animal fat may also predispose to gastrointestinal cancer. Therefore, it is advisable to make some lifestyle changes in order to minimise the risk factors of gastrointestinal cancer. Furthermore individuals should undergo screening for gastrointestinal cancer after the age of 50 years. This helps in early detection and timely management of cancer.

Gastrointestinal cancer: Complications

Gastrointestinal cancers may spread to other sites like bones and lungs through bloodstream and lymphatic route. Moreover persistent bleeding from cancer sites can result in anaemia.

Gastrointestinal cancer: Treatment

The management of gastrointestinal cancer depends upon the site, severity and spread of cancer. The health status and age of the affected individual also plays a role in determining the treatment plan. The primary treatment modality is surgical resection of cancerous part of gut followed by end-to-end suturing. This is usually followed by chemotherapy or radiotherapy. The prognosis of colon and rectal cancer is good, if the cancer is diagnosed in the early stages. However, oesophageal and pancreatic cancer carry a poor prognosis in most of the individuals.