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By the time you develop stomach cancer symptoms, the disease may be advanced. As a result, only about one out of five stomach cancers is diagnosed in an early, more treatable stage, the American Cancer Society estimates.
Given a person’s poor prognosis once stomach cancer symptoms occur, it’s vital to recognize what causes the disease and to understand your risk—and how to lower it. A recent report suggests there’s plenty you can do to reduce the likelihood that you’ll ever experience stomach cancer symptoms.
Your Lifestyle’s Role in Stomach Cancer
Stomach cancers are categorized as cardia stomach cancer, occurring in the upper portion of the stomach (the cardia) that connects to the esophagus; and non-cardia stomach cancer, which develops in all other areas of the stomach.
In a report released April 21, a panel of experts from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund analyzed data from 89 studies that examined the relationship between stomach cancer, diet, physical activity, and weight among 17.5 million adults, including 77,000 who were diagnosed with stomach cancers. According to the report, strong evidence identifies excessive alcohol consumption, consuming processed meats (such as hot dogs, bacon, and sausage) and being overweight/obese as significant risk factors for stomach cancer.
More specifically, the investigators found the following:
- Drinking three or more alcoholic drinks a day is associated with a greater risk of stomach cancer, especially in men, smokers, and former smokers. Most experts recommend limiting alcohol consumption to no more than two standard drinks a day for men and one a day for women. A standard drink equates to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of liquor or spirits.
- Every 1.8 ounces of processed meat (about the equivalent of a hot dog) consumed each day raises the risk of non-cardia stomach cancers by 18 percent. The AICR pointed out that consumption of processed meats already has been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
- Every five-unit increase in body mass index (BMI, a measure of obesity based on height and weight) is associated with a 23 percent greater risk of cardia stomach cancer. A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered normal, 25 to 29.9 is overweight, and 30 and higher is obese. To calculate your BMI, divide your weight in pounds by your height in inches squared and multiply by a factor of 703. Or, visit the BMI calculator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
- Consuming foods preserved by salting, such as pickled vegetables and salted/dried fish, increases the risk of stomach cancer. The AICR recommends consuming no more than six grams (one teaspoon) of salt a day.
The findings from the report “are groundbreaking and show there is strong evidence linking the risk of developing stomach cancers to a number of different lifestyle factors, such as drinking alcohol and eating processed meat,” panel member Michael Leitzmann, MD, said in a statement.
“This report is a real wake-up call,” Alice Bender, MS, RDN, head of nutrition programs at AICR, added. “Obesity is now linked to 11 types of cancer, and we want Americans to know there are steps everyone can take for cancer prevention and better health, like eating more vegetables, beans, fruits, and other plant foods, along with squeezing in a few more steps every day.”
About one in seven cases of stomach cancer in the United States—some 4,000 stomach cancer cases a year—could be prevented if people did not drink more than three alcoholic drinks a day, refrained from eating processed meat, and maintained a healthy weight, the AICR notes.
The report also acknowledges other established risk factors for stomach cancer, including Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection in the stomach and smoking—tobacco use is responsible for an estimated 11 percent of stomach cancer cases worldwide, according to the AICR.
Be on the Lookout for Stomach Cancer Symptoms
Stomach cancer symptoms may include:
- Stomach pain
- Loss of appetite
- Mild nausea
- A sense of fullness or bloating after eating
Stomach cancer usually originates in the stomach’s innermost layer, the mucosa. As the cancer progresses, it may grow into the stomach’s muscular middle layer (muscularis propria) and advance to its outermost layer (serosa). Eventually, the cancer may grow through the stomach wall and spread to nearby organs, or attack adjacent lymph nodes and travel to other organs in the body.
As the cancer progresses, it may cause more significant symptoms, such as:
- Severe abdominal pain
- Vomiting (with or without blood)
- Unintentional weight loss
- Blood in the stool
- Swallowing difficulties
- Fluid build-up in the abdomen
If any of these symptoms persist, see your doctor to find the cause.