Stomach Cancer Awareness Month: Disease less prevalent in United States but remains dangerous

With November serving as host to our country’s most food-centered holiday, it seems fitting that in 2010 the U.S. Senate passed a resolution designating it as Stomach Cancer Awareness Month.

Stomach cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, according to tracking statistics. Nearly one million people are diagnosed with stomach cancer each year, and the disease takes the lives of 700,000 of those individuals.  That is a fatality rate of 70 percent.

However, if you’re reading this and thinking that you’ve heard very little about the disease in the United States, you’re right.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2013, about 21,600 cases of stomach cancer will be diagnosed in the United States, leading to an expected 10,990 deaths, a fatality rate of 50 percent. While devastating to any individual, those national figures are low compared to the incidence of stomach cancer worldwide.

By way of comparison as a whole, estimates suggest that in 2013, there will be 36,580 new cancer cases in the state of Tennessee alone; and across America, 1,660,290 people will be diagnosed with cancer this year.

Stomach cancer was once a leading cause of death in the United States, but, beginning in the 1930s, the number of cases in our country began to decline. The reason for the drop hasn’t been fully established, but it may be linked to the introduction of refrigeration and resulting changes in diet to include more fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer salted and smoked foods.

The decline is also likely due to the use of antibiotics to treat infections. Antibiotics kill H. pylori, a type of bacteria that is the primary cause of peptic ulcers and can lead to infection of the stomach lining. Heliocobacter pylori, commonly known as H. pylori, affects at least 50 percent of the world’s population, but most individuals don’t realize they carry it because of a lack of associated symptoms. H. pylori has been identified as a clear risk factor in stomach cancer.

More men than women develop stomach cancer, and it is most prevalent in people 65 or older. Only one in five cases of stomach cancer is found before the disease has progressed and spread to other parts of the body, explaining why the mortality rate associated with this disease remains alarmingly high. As with all cancers, early diagnosis increases the likelihood of a successful treatment.

Stomach cancer is difficult to diagnose because its signs and symptoms often mimic other ailments, which may include the following:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling full after eating small amounts of food
  • Severe and persistent heartburn or indigestion
  • Vomiting
  • Persistent and unexplained nausea
  • Stomach (belly) pain

If you have these symptoms with an unexplained cause, or they don’t improve quickly or continue to worsen, see your GIA physician for proper diagnosis and treatment.