What is Upper Gastrointestinal Cancer?

Upper gastrointestinal cancer refers to any cancer affecting the upper part of the body’s digestive system. These types of cancers affect the organs that control how we eat and process food, making them an extremely disruptive and dangerous group of cancers to combat.

In this article I, Dr Rob Paterson, will outline the types of upper gastrointestinal cancer, symptoms to be aware of, and where to seek further advice.

Types of upper gastrointestinal cancer

There are six types of upper gastrointestinal cancers:

Bile duct cancer
Bile is needed for breaking down fats as we digest food. Our bile ducts carry bile from the liver and gall bladder through the pancreas to the small intestine. Cancer of the bile duct will often block the flow of bile into the digestive system, which results in bile building up in the blood and bodily tissues.

Symptoms can include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Jaundice (yellowness in the whites of the eyes)
  • Dark yellow urine

Gall bladder cancer
The gall bladder is responsible for storing bile from the liver before it’s passed into the small intestine to aid digestion of food. There are several types of gall bladder cancer, each named according to the cell that’s affected. Risk factors include smoking, work in the metal or rubber industries, or family history.

Symptoms can include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Pale stools
  • Itchy skin
  • Sudden weight loss

Liver cancer
Primary liver cancer is a malignant tumour that forms in the liver. The biggest cause of liver cancer is Hepatitis B or C, however obesity, high alcohol consumption, and diabetes can also increase your risk. Over 1,400 Australians are diagnosed with primary liver cancer each year.

Symptoms can include:

  • Decrease in appetite and weight loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain and/or swelling
  • Extreme weakness or fatigue

Oesophageal cancer
In Australia, oesophageal cancer is most commonly found in the lower section of the oesophagus, where it adjoins the stomach. Risk factors for developing this cancer include high alcohol consumption, obesity, drinking very hot liquids, family history, and smoking.

Symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty swallowing (this is the most common symptom)
  • Persistent indigestion or heartburn
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pain in your throat
  • A chronic cough

Pancreatic cancer
It’s estimated that 3,271 Australians will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017. It currently carries a 1 in 71 diagnosis risk for the average Australian. Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is usually not diagnosed until it’s at an advanced stage. As such, it has a low survival rate.

Symptoms can include:

  • Jaundice (yellow in the whites of the eyes)
  • Significant and unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent abdominal pain or discomfort
  • Nausea and vomiting

Stomach cancer
Also known as gastric cancer, stomach cancer can develop in any area of the stomach. However, it commonly starts in the lining (mucosa) in the upper part of the stomach. Over 2,000 Australians are diagnosed with stomach cancer each year, usually in people aged 60 years or older.

Symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bloody and/or black looking stools
  • Anaemia
  • Bloating and continuous indigestion

Living with upper gastrointestinal cancers

The diagnosis and treatment of an upper gastrointestinal cancer can cause significant emotional and physical hardship. Your lifestyle, and that of your loved ones, will be disrupted during your treatment. During this time, it’s important that you have adequate guidance and support.

Your oncologist with help you develop a care plan that meets your physical and emotional needs as you tackle treatment and recovery.

At Hunter Valley Oncology, we offer ongoing support and education for patients and their families. Our network of affiliated health professionals include, a dietician, and clinical psychologist who can assist with improving your quality of life throughout your cancer treatment and recovery.

Nutrition management

Patients who have undergone treatment for cancer of the oesophagus or stomach are likely to experience post surgical problems leading to nausea, reflux, abdominal discomfort, diarrhoea, and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing).

Since these are disorders that directly affect patients’ ability to eat and drink, good nutrition management is vital. Appropriate dietary adjustments and nutritional supplements can reduce the impact of many post surgical problems. Learn how to navigate common eating problems in our related article ‘How To Eat Well During Cancer Treatment’.

It is important to note that dysphagia is a serious condition that requires attention. Due to coughing when trying to swallow food, patients with dysphagia are at a high risk of food and/or drink passing into the airways. Dysphagia also makes ingesting adequate amounts of food and liquid so difficult that patients often experience poor nutrition and/or dehydration.

At Hunter Valley Oncology we would always recommend you speak with myself, another Oncologist or allow us to refer you to a recommended dietician for dietary guidance.

Where to get further advice

If you have concerns about your gastrointestinal health, I recommend you speak to your GP for a referral to see one of our qualified and caring Oncologists at Hunter Valley Oncology.

Our holistic Oncology service fulfils the needs of patients in Newcastle NSW and surrounds. To make an appointment, please call (02) 4941 8424 or (02) 4942 2600 or use our online contact form.

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