Cancer doesn’t exactly have a kind reputation, however, stomach cancer has one of the worst reputations and is best known for being one of the more painful forms of cancer. For many sufferers, the pain is not one of the disease’s early warning signs.
In fact, the most common feature of stomach cancer’s early stages may be that there are no symptoms or hardly any symptoms at all, says Umut Sarpel, MD, an associate professor and surgical oncologist at New York’s Mount Sinai Health System.
“We all get stomach aches from time to time, and that can make people worry about stomach cancer,” says Dr. Sarpel. She goes on to say, “But it’s not one of the most common cancers, and in most cases, stomach aches or pain are not going to be a result of cancer.
So, just how common is stomach cancer, really? About 1 in 111 adults will develop stomach (gastric) cancer at some point in their lifetime, and the disease is more common in men, according to the American Cancer Society. Dr. Sarpel adds that a person’s risk for the disease goes up with age.
Stomach cancer is not a typically inherited disease. “The majority of gastric cancers are sporadic, or caused by random DNA mutations,” she says. While there are super rare genetic mutations associated with the disease, Dr. Sarpel says it’s not worth testing for that unless a lot of people in your family tree have had the disease.
So what should you be on the lookout for? These 6 symptoms
Blood in your Stool or Vomit
Not exactly a guarantee that if you have these symptoms you have stomach cancer, however, both colitis and Crohn’s disease can cause bloody stool. Blood in either your poop or your vomit demands a visit to a GI doctor, Dr. Sarpel says. If the bleeding is related to stomach cancer, the blood in your stool is likely to look maroon or tarry black. “It looks that way because it has been acted on by your digestive enzymes,” she explains. If the blood is in your vomit, it’s more like to look bright red, and it may have a coarse “coffee grounds” texture only because it has been partially digested.
Your Appetite Dries Up in a Hurry
You were super hungry when you first sat down to eat, but after a few bites in, you are feeling full and food doesn’t look or taste appealing anymore. Dr. Sarpel calls this “early satiety,” and says it’s another symptom that could–emphasis on could– indicate that something is off, like stomach cancer. “Especially if feeling full really quickly is different than what you’re used to, that’s something you shouldn’t ignore,” she says.
Your Insides Hurt
Yep, in some cases, stomach pain is a signal for stomach cancer. However, in most cases, your pain is going to be the result of some other gut or abdominal ailment, not cancer, Dr. Sarpel says. Hallmarks of stomach cancer-related pain are that it is persistent and “gnawing,” she says. “It’s not something you feel for one day and then it goes away for two weeks and then comes back again.” Also, “classic” stomach cancer pain is a dull ache in the middle of your stomach, she says.
Many health conditions, including Type 1 Diabetes, Addison’s disease, and Crohn’s disease can lead to unexplained weight loss. Add stomach cancer to that list as well, says Dr. Sarpel. “If yo are losing weight and not dieting, that’s something to pay attention to,” she explains. Be aware that the weight loss may be gradual. While you may not notice a sudden drop, you might step on a scale and find you have lost 10 pounds in the last 6 months. Don’t freak out over a few pounds that have been shed. But, if the weight loss is noticeable and you haven’t been doing anything that accounts for it, talk with your doctor.
Heartburn that Won’t Quit
Heartburn and indigestion and other common symptoms of an unhappy gut can also be early warning signs of stomach cancer. According to resources from MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, these reoccurring symptoms should not be ignored. Again, Dr. Sarpel says these sort of symptoms are much more likely to be something other than cancer. But, it’s still a good idea to let your doctor know what’s going on. Aside from that, there are medications that can help to relieve the discomfort caused by gut issues.
Bloating, Diarrhea, and Constipation
If a cancer is growing in your stomach it could make you feel bloated or even mess with your bowel movements. While each of these symptoms is never going to scream “stomach cancer” on their own to a doctor, experiencing them with some of the other issues on this list could lead to cancer-related follow up testing if your doctor cannot pinpoint another explanation.