By Gwen Spector, BSN, RN, COCN, Complex GI Cancer Nurse Navigator at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Medical City Healthcare
According to the GI Cancers Alliance, gastrointestinal cancers (combined) are the most common form of cancer in the United States. Gastrointestinal (GI) cancers occur in the organs that make up the digestive system, also known as the GI system. They break down the food you eat so your body can use it for the energy needed to help function every day. Cancer can occur anywhere in the digestive system – in the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine (colon and rectum), liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. Many of the most common cancers in the United States and the world develop in the digestive system.
Facts about GI cancer
- Colorectal cancer is the third most diagnosed cancer in men and women in the United States. It is more common in people over the age of 50, but is on the rise in adults under 50. Unlike many other GI cancers, colorectal cancer is treatable and often preventable when found early on screening exams.
- According to the Esophageal Cancer Action Network, esophageal cancer caused by long-time gastroesophageal reflux disease (adenocarcinoma) is one of the fastest growing cancers in the United States.
- Pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed in later stages, and has become the third leading cause of cancer-related death. Frequent or long-time pancreatitis and a family history of pancreatic cancer are two risk factors.
- Primary liver cancer rates have risen in the United States. The American Cancer Society reports the number of new cases has tripled since 1980. Causes include increases in undiagnosed and untreated Hepatitis C in baby boomers and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Other risk factors include Hepatitis B and excess alcohol consumption.
- In addition to hepatitis, other infections are risk factors for GI cancers. The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) for anal cancer and helicobacter (H.) pylori for stomach cancer.
- Risk factors for most GI cancers include poor diet, obesity, lack of physical activity, and smoking. Personal and family history of cancer, inherited genetic conditions, and chronic inflammation can also increase the risk of GI cancers.
Reducing your risk of getting GI cancer
- The American Institute of Cancer Research states nearly half of the most common cancers could be prevented with lifestyle changes. Prevention and early detection of GI cancers saves lives.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables and less red meat and processed meats and foods.
- Keep a healthy weight; obesity is linked to many GI cancers.
- Be active every day. Get your steps in. The American Cancer Society recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week (or a combination of these), preferably spread throughout the week.
- Don’t use tobacco of any type.
- Limit your alcohol.
- Hepatitis C screening is recommended at least once in a lifetime for all adults and for all pregnant women during each pregnancy. For more information see Testing Recommendations for Hepatitis C Virus Infection.
- Talk with your doctor or county health department about immunizations you should be getting such as Hepatitis B and HPV.
- Practice safe sex.
- Know your family history of cancer and report it when you’re asked about your medical history.
- Talk to your doctor if you are taking non-prescription acid reflux medicines longer than two weeks.
- See your doctor routinely. Discuss which screening exams are right for you based on your age, gender, and risk factors. Sarah Cannon recommends a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years or a colonoscopy every 10 years for people 45 and over. Dependent on your risk, there are alternative tests. Consult with your physician for more information.
- Pay attention to your body. Notify your doctor if you notice changes such as blood in your stool, weight loss without trying, or a change in bowel habits lasting more than a few weeks.
- If you have GI cancer-related questions call askSARAH at (844)-482-4812 or visit askSARAH online.
Websites with information about preventing, detecting and treating GI cancers
- American Cancer Society
- American College of Gastroenterology
- American Liver Foundation
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Colorectal Cancer Alliance
- Esophageal Cancer Action Network
- National Cancer Institute
- Pancreatic Cancer Action Network
- Prevent Cancer Foundation
- For more information on GI cancer, visit GI Cancer on the Sarah Cannon Expert Blog.
It is important to know that the information in this post, including Sarah Cannon’s recommendations for screening, is accurate as of the publishing date.
American Cancer Society Cancer Statistics Center