Signs and Symptoms of Stomach Cancer

Possible Warning Signs of Gastric Cancer

women with abdominal pain, one of the symptoms of stomach cancer
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Signs and symptoms of stomach cancer range from blood in the stool to abdominal pain. Often times, however, stomach cancer does not have symptoms in the early stages, or the symptoms can be vague, subtle, and nonspecific—such as nausea or weight loss. Unfortunately, there is not a single symptom or warning sign that pinpoints a diagnosis of stomach cancer, so further evaluation and testing is required for a diagnosis.

Symptoms vary among different people and also depend on the stage of the disease, as well as the particular type of gastric cancer. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of stomach cancer listen below, please see your doctor. With most diseases, a timely diagnosis leads to a better treatment outcome.

Signs and Symptoms of Stomach Cancer

Cancer often heralds its presence both with signs—visible changes such as blood in the stool, and symptoms—how you feel inside but which others cannot see, such as fatigue. As we list the symptoms below, you will note that they are all very nonspecific and could be related to a wide range of medical conditions. The more symptoms you have, the more likely there is a problem, but even if you have only one symptom it's important to know the reason. Common symptoms of stomach cancer include the following:

Blood in the Stool

Blood in the stool can be a symptom of stomach cancer but has many possible causes. The color of blood in the stool often provides an important clue as to the origin of bleeding.

Bright red blood (hematochezia), such as you may note when wiping with toilet tissue, may be alarming but is not usually a reason to panic. This type of bleeding is often related to less serious conditions (though still unpleasant) such as hemorrhoids and anal fissures. It can, however, be due to cancers lower in the digestive tract, such as rectal cancer and colon cancer in the descending (last part) of the colon.

Blood that comes from higher in the digestive tract is usually not red and instead may appear black and tarry (melena). Bleeding from the stomach is often described as having a "coffee ground" appearance. Yet, there are many possible explanations for this as well, including bleeding anywhere from the esophagus to the upper portion of the colon.

Blood in the stool is not always visible to the eye. Your stool can contain trace amounts of blood that only a test, such as the fecal occult blood test, can reveal. In fact, the first clue that you may be bleeding internally may be the presence of anemia (iron deficiency anemia from blood loss) on a complete blood count (CBC).

Abdominal Pain and Discomfort

Abdominal pain is one of the most common symptoms of stomach cancer and is usually what prompts people to seek medical attention. Abdominal pain can range from persistent mild discomfort to severe pain. Pain and discomfort generally occur in the upper abdomen area. That said, due to the way the nerves detect pain in the abdomen, the location of pain doesn't necessarily reflect where the source of that pain is located.

Abdominal pain, like other symptoms mentioned here, has many possible causes, and many of these conditions are more common than stomach cancer. These can vary from mostly "nuisance" conditions, such as lactose intolerance, to serious conditions. Other types of cancers that can cause abdominal pain include pancreatic cancerliver cancer, bile duct and gallbladder cancer.

Persistent abdominal pain, regardless of where it occurs, needs to be evaluated by your doctor.

Persistent Nausea and/or Vomiting

Nausea and vomiting are likewise common symptoms, with many causes which are more common than stomach cancer. If you have nausea and vomiting which persists, however, there is a greater chance that it is signaling a more serious issue. If your symptoms are lasting, or if you vomit up any blood (even if just a small amount), make an appointment to see your doctor right away. If you are vomiting up a large amount of blood (more than a few teaspoons) don't wait to make an appointment and call 911. Gastric hemorrhage is a medical emergency.

Loss of Appetite or Feeling Full Quickly

It's not uncommon to lose your appetite for a day or two, but if you find that you just don't feel like eating for more than a few days, see your doctor. There are many conditions which can cause a loss of appetite, only one of which is stomach cancer. But a decrease in appetite is often a serious signal that something is wrong.

Closely related to lack of appetite is a sensation of fullness which occurs even after eating only a light meal. If you find that you are hungry (have a normal appetite), but feel full quickly, talk to your doctor.

Abdominal Bloating

Abdominal bloating can be a symptom of stomach cancer, especially when it occurs after meals. You are probably familiar with the bloating that comes with eating a high fiber meal or eating too much. If you are feeling bloated and don't have an explanation, however, talk to your doctor.

In addition to stomach cancer and other conditions,  abdominal bloating is often the first symptom of ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer has been coined the "silent killer" due to the lack of symptoms early on in the disease.

Heartburn and/or Indigestion

Heartburn is more often related to esophageal irritation from acid reflux, but can also be a symptom of stomach cancer. Indigestion is an important symptom to note as well, especially if it lasts more than a day or two.

Changes in Bowel Habits

Changes in bowel habits, including diarrhea and constipation, are often related to less serious conditions. But these changes are also one of the warning signs of stomach cancer. Everybody has different bowel habits, and what is normal for one person may not be for another. The most important finding is if your bowel habits change for you as an individual. If you notice a change, talk to your doctor.

Feeling Excessively Tired

Fatigue that lasts more than a few days can indicate a medical problem. With stomach cancer, fatigue is often related to anemia due to blood loss in the stool or from vomiting. It seems we are all tired these days, but cancer-related fatigue is often different. It is the kind of fatigue that doesn't usually improve with a good night's rest or a good cup of coffee. This kind of fatigue often develops gradually, so it may help to think back 6 to 12 months and compare your energy level now to back then. If it's clear that you are more tired, make an appointment, even if you don't have any other symptoms.

Losing Weight Without Trying

Most of us would welcome weight loss without dieting, but unintentional weight loss is a health concern that needs to be brought to your doctor's attention. If you have lost about 5 percent of your normal body weight (for example, a weight loss of 7.5 pounds for a 150-pound person) during the course of six months or less, and haven't been dieting or exercising, call your doctor. Unintentional weight loss can be the result of many serious conditions, including stomach cancer.

A Gut Feeling That Something is Wrong

It's not uncommon for people who are diagnosed with cancer to admit that they knew something was amiss. You may simply not feel well or have a gut sense that something is wrong. Trust your intuition. The worst thing that can happen is that you lose the time and money involved in making an appointment. In contrast, the worst that can happen from not listening to your body's voice could be tragic.

Bottom Line on the Signs and Symptoms of Stomach Cancer

The signs and symptoms of stomach cancer have many possible causes. The important point to note, however, is that even if your symptoms aren't due to cancer in your stomach, there are many other serious conditions which could be present if you experience abdominal pain, bowel changes, or unexpected weight loss.

It's important to make an appointment to see your doctor if you note any symptoms that don't have an explanation. Symptoms are our body's way of alerting us to issues that need to be addressed. If you see your doctor and don't have an explanation for what you are dealing with, follow up and ask again.

Stomach cancer, as well as many of the other possible reasons for these symptoms, can sometimes be challenging to diagnose. If you still don't have answers, consider a second opinion. While your doctor may spend 15 or 30 minutes with you, you live in your body 24/7. As noted above, trust your gut and look around you. Most cancers are easiest to treat if they are found in the earlier stages of the disease. Many people who are diagnosed in the early stages have had to be their own advocate, a "squeaky wheel" so to speak, in order to get the care they later knew was so important.

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