Early signs of stomach cancer are vague and can include common, relatively harmless symptoms such as stomachache, bloating, and wind. Further symptoms may require a doctor’s consultation.

General stomach symptoms, such as upset stomach and bloating, are commonly due to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or food intolerances. However, when symptoms persist and worsen over time, or if a person develops symptoms of fatigue, weight loss, or blood in the stool, it could indicate a more serious condition, such as stomach cancer.

Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, is a type of cancer that develops in the lining of the stomach. It tends to start as a precancerous lesion and progress to cancer. It usually develops slowly over many years and may not cause symptoms in the early stages.

Early detection and diagnosis are vital to successful treatment and a person’s overall outlook, so it is important to be aware of the symptoms and warning signs.

Read on to learn about the symptoms of stomach cancer, risk factors, and when to speak with a doctor.

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The initial symptoms of stomach cancer are vague, and a person may easily mistake them for other, less serious conditions. They include:

  • indigestion and heartburn
  • trapped wind
  • feeling bloated after meals
  • stomach pain
  • nausea and vomiting

As the condition advances, additional symptoms can develop, including:

  • black, bloody, or tarry stools
  • difficulty swallowing
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • anemia
  • fatigue

It is easy to assume that relatively benign symptoms, such as indigestion and wind, may indicate stomach cancer. People should know that, in most cases, their symptoms occur due to common conditions that include IBS.

However, if a person has ongoing or worsening symptoms, they should speak with a doctor. They can help determine the underlying cause of symptoms and provide a treatment plan.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Doctors in the United States diagnose around 28,000 people with stomach cancer each year. Certain risk factors increase a person’s risk of developing the condition.

These factors include:

  • Age: Stomach cancer is more common in people aged 60–80 years.
  • Biological sex: The disease affects males more often than females.
  • Race and ethnicity: It can affect people of all races and ethnic groups but occurs more frequently in those of African American, Hispanic American, and Native American heritage.
  • Location: Although experts do not know exactly why, stomach cancer is more common in East Asia, Eastern Europe, and South and Central America.
  • Family history: People with first-degree relatives, such as parents or siblings, who have stomach cancer are more likely to develop the condition.
  • Cigarettes and alcohol: People who smoke tobacco are consume alcohol are more likely to develop stomach cancer than those who do not.
  • Obesity: Having overweight or obesity can increase the risk of some forms of cancer, including stomach cancer.
  • Diet: Eating large quantities of salted, preserved foods, such as fish, meat, and vegetables, increases the risk of stomach cancer. Likewise, experts link processed, grilled, or charcoaled meats to some stomach cancers.
  • Helicobacter pylori infection: This pathogen can cause stomach ulcers and gastritis and increase the risk of developing stomach cancer when present for a long time.

Diagnosing stomach cancer begins with a detailed medical history, family history, and physical examination. The doctor will ask about a person’s symptoms, when they started, and if they have any risk factors.

They may also request a complete blood count to check for low red blood cell levels, or anemia, and a stool test to detect the presence of blood invisible to the naked eye.

Additionally, they may order a test called upper endoscopy examination, which allows them to view the upper portion of the digestive tract. It involves inserting a thin, flexible tube containing a camera down the throat. The doctor can also remove a tissue sample for laboratory analysis if there are abnormalities.

Other tests may include imaging studies such as CT or MRI scans. These allow the doctor to take detailed pictures of the body’s internal structures, including any tumors or abnormalities in the stomach.

Another option is a double-contrast gastrointestinal series using X-rays and a barium swallow. Barium is a chalky liquid that coats the walls of the gastrointestinal tract, allowing the doctor to view it more clearly on X-rays.

If a person has stomach cancer, further tests can help determine the disease’s stage and guide treatment decisions.

For example, a laparoscopy or laparotomy involves examining the abdomen with an illuminated viewing tube that doctors insert through incisions in the abdominal wall. It allows them to examine the organs for cancer signs and take tissue or fluid samples.

Learn more about how doctors diagnose stomach cancer.

Because the early symptoms of stomach cancer are similar to many other conditions, many people delay seeking medical advice until the disease is more advanced. However, it is important to remember that early diagnosis gives a person the greatest likelihood of successful treatment and recovery.

Anyone who experiences digestive symptoms, fatigue, or unexplained weight loss should contact their doctor for further investigation and advice.

A person may have difficulty knowing when to worry about stomach cancer as many conditions share similar symptoms.

However, early diagnosis and treatment are critical for stomach cancer. Therefore, anyone who experiences digestive symptoms, fatigue, or unexplained weight loss should speak with their doctor as soon as possible. Healthcare professionals can rule out or diagnose any underlying condition and begin treatment when appropriate.