Gastrointestinal cancer care

HonorHealth and its physicians specialize in diagnosing and treating all types of gastrointestinal cancer. In addition to traditional treatments that include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, the specialists at HonorHealth can direct you to cutting-edge clinical trials at the HonorHealth Research Institute.

Your team of experts at HonorHealth will create a personalized treatment plan based on such factors as the characteristics of your tumor, your health history and your family's medical history. Your plan is also based on your personal goals and built around body, mind and spiritual needs.

What are gastrointestinal cancer symptoms

Gastrointestinal, or GI, cancer relates to the GI tract — from the throat and esophagus into the stomach and small and large intestines, as well as abdominal organs such as the liver and pancreas. The cancers are typically categorized by their location in the GI system – either upper or lower cancers.

Upper gastrointestinal cancers include cancers of the throat, esophagus and stomach. Common symptoms include vomiting and difficulty swallowing.

Lower gastrointestinal cancer involves the small or large intestine. Common symptoms include:

  • Blockages that cause intense pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bleeding that may cause the stool to become black and/or lead to anemia

How is gastrointestinal cancer treated?

In general, gastrointestinal cancer can be treated successfully when caught early through colonoscopy. The earlier the diagnosis, the more likely you'll be an ideal candidate for less invasive treatment such as laparoscopic or robotic surgery. These types of surgery offer a faster recovery than large-incision operations, a lower risk of infection, less pain and shorter hospital stays.

Depending on the type of cancer and its stage, your doctor also might recommend chemotherapy or radiation. A variety of factors, including your family history, could affect how aggressively you and your doctor will want to treat the cancer. Clinical trials are another option for qualified patients.

How do doctors diagnose the main types of gastrointestinal cancer?

GI cancer comes in many forms and can be detected in a variety of ways:

  • Bowel cancer: Cancers of the large and small intestine can be difficult to find. Symptoms include blockages and bleeding. A variety of tests, including an MRI or CT scan, can help determine the cause of problems you may be having.
  • Colorectal cancer: Perhaps the most preventable form of gastrointestinal cancer, colon cancer can be prevented, diagnosed, and/or caught early through a colonoscopy. Nearly all colorectal cancers begin as polyps, which can be detected and removed during a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is recommended starting at age 50, or sooner if you have a family history of colon cancer. It's especially important to talk to your doctor about scheduling routine colonoscopies if you have a family history of colon cancer.
  • Esophageal cancer: A type of upper gastrointestinal cancer, esophageal cancer has symptoms similar to throat cancer, such as difficult swallowing. Doctors can diagnose esophageal cancer through upper endoscopy. Individuals with a history of gastric reflux disease are at higher risk. Talk with your doctor if you have a history of gastroesophageal reflux disease or are a heavy user of tobacco or alcohol, which increases your risk for this type of cancer.
  • Liver cancer: A variety of factors can lead to liver cancer. Hepatitis B or C, excessive alcohol consumption and genetics are all possible causes. Symptoms include jaundice, abdominal pain, bleeding, weight loss or abdominal swelling. If you experience any of these symptoms — particularly if you have a family history — consult your doctor to schedule a screening exam.
  • Pancreatic cancer: Symptoms include abdominal pain, jaundice and weight loss. It's difficult to diagnose early because pancreatic cancer symptoms often mimic other ailments. A doctor can diagnose pancreatic cancer after a CT scan, MRI or upper endoscopy. Primary treatments include surgery and chemotherapy. Clinical trials, an area of specialization at HonorHealth, have shown promise in treatment of this type of cancer.
  • Stomach cancer: Common symptoms include weight loss, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Surgery can remove all or part of the cancerous tissue in the stomach. Chemotherapy also is a common treatment.
  • Throat cancer: A type of upper gastrointestinal cancer, throat cancer can cause difficulty with swallowing or pain in your throat. Vomiting is common. To diagnose it, a gastroenterologist will use an endoscope, a flexible tube with a light and camera attached to it, to view pictures of your digestive tract on a color TV monitor.

How is gastrointestinal cancer detected?

If you're experiencing persistent symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty swallowing or a swollen abdomen contact your doctor. A blood test or an imaging exam that might include endoscopic procedures, X-rays, ultrasound, CT scans or MRIs could rule out any concerns. Many gastrointestinal cancers don't have routine screening tests, so talk with your doctor about your personal needs and risk factors.

What are the causes of GI cancer and how can it be prevented?

Scientists continue to explore the cause of GI cancer. While genetics can play a significant role, it's not a guarantee that you'll develop a gastrointestinal cancer because one of your parents did. What is clear is that smoking, diet and exercise can impact whether cancer develops.

How can you prevent or avoid gastrointestinal cancer? Doctors recommend taking these steps:

  • Maintain a proper diet and be sure to exercise regularly
  • Reduce alcohol consumption
  • Stop smoking to lower your risk of cancer
  • Know your family history — it can affect the possibility of developing a gastrointestinal cancer. Tell your doctor if you've had colorectal cancer in your family, and be sure to schedule colonoscopies starting at age 50 – earlier if you have a family history.
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • If you experience difficulty swallowing, vomiting, abdominal pain or cramping, bleeding or other persistent, consistent discomfort, visit your doctor