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  • What are stomach and oesphageal cancer?

    Last reviewed November 2013


    The oesophagus and stomach

    The oesophagus and stomach are parts of the
digestive system, which processes food, absorbs nutrients and disposes of solid waste. The digestive system is often called the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

    The oesophagus is a hollow tube that takes food and fluids from the mouth to the stomach. When you swallow, the muscular walls of the oesophagus push food down to the stomach. Movement of the food through the digestive system is called peristalsis.

    The stomach is a hollow, muscular organ between the end of the oesophagus and the beginning of the small bowel. It sits in the upper left part of the abdomen. The stomach stores food, and also absorbs some vitamins, minerals and iron.

    When food is in the stomach, the muscles of the stomach break it up into a paste. Acidic digestive (gastric) juices are released from glands in the mucosa, the innermost layer of the stomach. These juices turn the food into a thick fluid and start to break it down before food moves into the small intestine.

    When the broken-down food is in the small bowel, nutrients from the food are absorbed into the bloodstream.

    Stomach and oesophageal cancer

    Types of stomach cancer

    Stomach cancer, or gastric cancer, usually develops in the cells that line the mucosa. This type of cancer is called adenocarcinoma of the stomach.

    Stomach cancer is a slow-growing cancer that can spread in several ways. It can spread through the stomach wall to nearby organs, such as the liver, pancreas or large bowel. Cancer can also spread if cells travel into the bloodstream or lymphatic system.

    The other types of stomach cancer, which are not discussed here, are lymphomas, gastric stromal tumours and carcinoid tumours.

    For information about these types of stomach cancer,
call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or speak to your doctor.

    Types of oesophageal cancer

    There are two main types of oesophageal cancer:

    Squamous cell carcinoma - begins in squamous cells that line the middle and upper part of the oesophagus.

    Adenocarcinoma - begins in glandular tissue in the lower part of the oesophagus.

    Like stomach cancer, oesophageal cancer can spread to nearby lymph nodes and through the bloodstream to other parts of the body if it is not found and treated early.

    How common are they?

    Each year about 163 people in South Australia are diagnosed with stomach cancer. It is twice as common in men.

    Oesophageal cancer affects about 100 people in South Australia each year. Men are three times more likely than women to develop oesophageal cancer.


    Many people diagnosed with cancer want to know what caused the disease. The exact causes of oesophageal and stomach cancer are not known. However there are some factors that may increase your risk.

    Risk factors

    Stomach and oesophageal cancer are both associated with ageing, tobacco use and alcohol consumption. Other risks of stomach cancer include:

    • a diet high in smoked, salted, pickled or poorly refrigerated foods
    • infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a type of bacteria
    • pernicious anaemia
    • chronic gastritis
    • a genetic condition or family history of cancer.

    Risks of oesophageal cancer may include:

    • obesity or being overweight
    • medical conditions, including Barrett’s oesophagus, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD), coeliac disease, tylosis and achalasia
    • exposure to certain chemical fumes or dry-cleaning solvents.


    In their early stages stomach and oesophageal cancers may not cause noticeable symptoms.

    This means they are usually not diagnosed until the cancer is advanced.

    Symptoms of stomach cancer may include:

    • a painful or burning sensation in the abdomen

    • swelling of the abdomen (ascites) or feeling bloated
    • a sense of fullness, even after a small meal

    • nausea and/or vomiting

    • blood in vomit

    • indigestion (dyspepsia) and heartburn (reflux)

    • appetite and/or weight loss

    • unexplained tiredness or weakness

    • black-coloured stool (faeces) or blood in stool.

     Symptoms of oesophageal cancer may include:

    • difficult or painful swallowing (dysphagia/odynophagia)
    • pain behind the breastbone and/or heartburn (reflux)

    • regurgitation of saliva or food

    • hoarseness or coughing
    • vomiting or coughing up blood
    • weight loss.

    Symptoms of stomach and oesophageal cancer are common to other conditions. See your doctor if you are concerned.

    Information reviewed by: Prof David I Watson, Head, Flinders University Department of Surgery and Head, Oesophago-Gastric Surgical Unit, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Andrew Chester, Consumer; Jedda Clune, Senior Dietitian (Head & Neck and Upper GI Oncology), Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Marion Draffin, Consumer; Carmen Heathcote, Cancer Council QLD Helpline Operator; Frank Hughes, Cancer Council QLD Helpline Operator; Dr Gregory Keogh, Upper Gastrointestinal Surgeon, Prince of Wales Hospital, NSW; and Meg Rogers, Nurse Coordinator: Upper Gastrointestinal Service, Advance Practice Nurse, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC

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