Gastrointestinal Cancers and Lesions

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The gastrointestinal tract is the system through which food and liquid are carried through the body. It includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, large intestine (colon), rectum, and anus. If cells in any of these parts begin to grow abnormally and mutate, it could develop into a cancerous tumor or lesion.

Cancers of the GI tract include esophageal, stomach, liver, pancreas, and colorectal (colon and rectal). Of these cancers, colorectal cancer is the most common, affecting one in 23 men and one in 25 women in their lifetime.

Some cancers, such as pancreatic cancer, display few or no symptoms. But all cancers involve the growth of a tumor, which interferes with the organ’s ability to function and can lead to the following symptoms:

Type of Cancer

Here are general symptoms of GI cancers. It is important to be examined by a gastroenterologist to properly diagnose your condition.

SymptomsColonEsophagusGallbladderLiverPancreasStomach
Abdominal pain and/or swelling--
Blood in vomit or stools---
Changes in bowel movements, including in the shape and/or consistency of the stool-----
Difficulty swallowing-----
Fatigue or weakness----
Feeling full after a small meal-----
Heartburn-----
Loss of appetite----
Nausea and vomiting---
Unexplained fever----
Unexplained weight loss---
Yellowing of the eyes and skin, or jaundice---
Based on the patient’s symptoms, the gastroenterologist will perform a complete exam and likely order one or more of the following tests.

  • Imaging/scans – A variety of X-rays, such as more-specialized ultrasounds, CT scans, and MRIs, can help the doctor detect the presence of cancerous tumors, lesions, and polyps. The patient will likely be administered a dye or barium-containing fluid to outline the tract.
  • Endoscopy – The gastroenterologist feeds a flexible tube equipped with a camera into the GI tract to examine for ulcers, lesions, and polyps. An upper endoscopy is fed into the esophagus and travels to the stomach.
  • Colonoscopy – A long, flexible tube with a tiny video camera is inserted into the colon through the anus. The gastroenterologist examines the entire colon, and can remove polyps, for biopsy, during the procedure.
  • SigmoidoscopyThis procedure is similar to a colonoscopy but examines just the last two feet of the colon.
  • Colonography – Air is gently pumped into the colon through a narrow tube, and then a machine takes two- and three-dimensional images of the colon and rectum.
  • Endoscopic ultrasoundThis test combines an ultrasound with an endoscopy.

The procedures for treating GI cancer will differ depending on the affected organ(s). However, cases may require at least some of the following treatments:

  • Radiation therapy – Applying high-energy rays to damage cancer cells and halt their growth.
  • Chemotherapy –Administering anti-cancer chemicals into the body, through a vein, or as a drug, to kill fast-growing cancer cells.
  • Ablation therapy – A treatment that destroys abnormal tissue using extreme heat (radiofrequency waves), extreme cold, chemical injections, or proton beam radiation.
  • Surgery – Depending on the stage of the cancer, different surgical procedures will remove cancerous tumors, lesions, or polyps. In some cases, less-invasive laparoscopic surgery may be prescribed. For example, polyps in the colon can be removed through small incisions in the abdominal wall.

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