Cancer

10 things to know about the stomach and the cancer that affects it

Written By: Hera Canaj, Yunni Jeong, Laura Davis, Dr. Natalie Coburn, Department of Clinical and Evaluative Sciences, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre


Our stomachs play a key role in nutrition and are therefore very important to our overall well-being. As one of the central members of the digestive system, the stomach is a muscular, sack-like organ that breaks down the food we eat. It contains powerful digestive juices that liquefy food and allow it to pass into the small intestine to continue to digest. Sometimes, cells in the stomach can undergo changes that cause them to grow or act abnormally and result in the formation of tumours.

It’s important to understand the risks of developing stomach cancer and recognize concerning symptoms in order to catch cancer early and treat it in a timely fashion.

With this in mind, here are 10 facts that you might not have known about our stomachs and stomach cancer:

1. There are very strong acids in our stomachs that help break down food. Why don’t these acids hurt our stomachs? The mucous membrane in the lining of the stomach protects it.

2. While other organs in the gut have two layers of muscles, the stomach has three layers to help it mechanically squeeze and break down food.

3. You can live without your stomach, but it will require life-changing adjustments to your diet and eating habits. (Watch Jim’s story about living without a stomach.)

4. Stomach cancer is the third most common cancer in the world.

5. The number of people who get diagnosed with stomach cancer is different across countries. Stomach cancer is most common in Asian countries, such as Japan, Korea, and China, as well as in Eastern Europe. It is less common in North America.

6. Stomach cancer affects more men than women and the risk increases with age. The highest risk occurs in people over age 50.

7. It is estimated that nearly half of the world’s population is infected with Helicobacter pylori. Having an H pylori infection is sometimes linked to an increased risk of stomach cancer.

8. Smoking, family history and exposure to ionizing radiation are also known risk factors. Alcohol, obesity and occupational exposure to lead are possible risk factors. Coffee, tea and drugs that lower stomach acid have no association with stomach cancer. You can learn more about known and possible risk factors here.

9. Stomach cancer is not associated with specific symptoms. This means that often it is detected at a later stage. How can we detect stomach cancer early on? Getting regular health checkups, especially after the age of 50, is a great start; and be sure to tell your doctor if you have:

  • heartburn or indigestion
  • feeling full after a small meal
  • feeling like food is getting stuck in the throat while eating
  • constant or progressively worsening nausea or vomiting
  • low blood (hemoglobin) levels

10. Rates of stomach cancer have lowered in recent years. In the past when there was no refrigeration, people ate a lot of smoked, pickled and salted foods, which can cause increased risk of stomach cancer. With the introduction of refrigeration, we are able to store and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. This shows the importance of changing lifestyle factors in managing stomach cancer.

To read more about any of these points please visit Cancer.ca 

On National Stomach Cancer Awareness Day, we hope to spread facts about stomach cancer and inform everyone on the ways to identify, and protect themselves from this disease. We hope this awareness can spread across communities and help to save lives. If you are interested in joining the cause, please attend the 1st Annual My Gut Feeling Conference where you will have a chance to hear from doctors, researchers and connect with patients regarding stomach cancer. You can visit mygutfeeling.ca to register, and join the conversation. Participation is free for patients and their caregivers, and is open to all interested general attendees.

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Sunnybrook