November, the month when our holiday and our family celebrations revolve around food, is National Stomach Cancer Awareness Month. Once the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, stomach cancer will still cause nearly 11,000 deaths this year in the United States alone. Also called gastric cancer, it is still the third leading cause of cancer death around the world. Primarily diagnosed in people over age 55, one in 111 men and women will be diagnosed in their lives. Stomach cancer is difficult to detect, and is most often diagnosed after it has spread to other parts of the body. Caregivers, home care aides and loved ones need to know the signs, symptoms, and risk factors of stomach cancer to secure the best odds of prevention and survival.

Doctors still don’t know why rates of stomach cancer have declined so dramatically since their peak in the 1930s, but they suspect our national change in diet, the spread of refrigeration, and an increase in the use of antibiotics. As a country, we eat more fresh food, less salt-preserved food, and take more antibiotics than we did in the 1930s. Two major risk factors for stomach cancer are eating a lot of processed, salty or smoked foods, and infection by the H. pylori bacteria in the stomach. Antibiotics taken for other infections have the fortunate side-effect of eliminating H. pylori as well. Despite these modern developments, nearly 28,000 people are still diagnosed each year with stomach cancer, and 60% of them are over 65. In addition to age, a high-salt diet, and infection with H. pylori, risk factors for stomach cancer include: a close family member with stomach cancer, ulcers or h. pylori infection, BRCA1, BRCA 2 and other related genes, previous stomach surgery, gastric polyps, ethnicity (black, Hispanic or Asian), alcohol use/abuse, smoking, and obesity. Plus, men are twice as likely to develop stomach cancer as women.

Unfortunately, stomach cancer is elusive as it develops and is difficult to detect in its early stages when it’s growing in the inner layers of the stomach wall. According to the UCSF Medical Center website, seniors and those with one or more risk factors should be alert for the following warning signs:

  • “Indigestion or heartburn
  • Discomfort or pain in the abdomen
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Bloating of the stomach after meals
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Bleeding, including vomiting blood or having blood in the stool”

How do you know if experiencing any of these symptoms means that you or a loved one has stomach cancer? Your doctor will perform one of the following tests: a Fecal Occult Blood Test, an upper GI series, an endoscopy, and finally a biopsy. If the tests reveal stomach cancer, then surgery to remove the affected part of the stomach, radiation and chemotherapy are all treatment options.  Treatments that were developed to fight other cancers, like genetic testing, lymph node mapping, and immunotherapy are also being tested against stomach cancer.

As with many diseases and conditions that affect seniors, prevention is the best strategy. While a person can live a normal life without a stomach, preventing and treating this cancer before it spreads is preferable to surgery. A healthy diet, a healthy weight, and ditching unhealthy habits like smoking are the best way to avoid this subtle and elusive cancer.