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Cancer in the Digestive System

By Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP May 24, 2017Pearls of Wisdom Blog

May 29th is World Digestive Health Day. Learn more about cancer and the digestive system from Complex GI Nurse Navigator, Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP.

The Digestive System

The digestive or gastrointestinal (G.I.) system is made up of the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. These organs work together to break down the food you eat into nutrients that are absorbed by the bloodstream and carried to all of the cells in your body. This is what gives your body the vital fuel it needs to function.

Facts about Digestive Cancers

  • Colorectal cancer is the #3 diagnosed cancer in the US and the #2 cause of cancer related death in men and women. Many digestive cancers are found in later stages, but colorectal cancer can be found and treated in earlier stages or even prevented due to screening exams.
  • The American Cancer Society reports that even though colorectal cancer is found more often in people ages 50 and older, it’s on the rise in people under age 50. A study from 1974-2013 found a 1% increase per year in the colon cancer incidence of people 20-49; and an increase per year in the new cases of rectal cancer in adults 20-39 (3%) and 40-54 (2%).
  • The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network reports that pancreatic cancer is expected to be the second cause of cancer-related death by 2020.
  • According to the Esophageal Cancer Action Network, Esophageal cancer caused by long-time GERD (adenocarcinoma) is one of the fastest growing cancers in the US.
  • The CDC reports that liver cancer is increasing approximately 2.3% per year and the death rate is growing rapidly at 3% per year. The cause of this increase is credited mostly to an increase in the cases of Hepatitis C especially in the baby boomer generation.

Common risk factors for Digestive Cancer

Risk factors are generally classified as modifiable (able to change or prevent) and non-modifiable (not able to change or prevent). Modifiable risk factors are usually related to lifestyle habits. Having either type of risk factor doesn’t mean you will get cancer just that you are at higher risk. Unfortunately you can get cancer even without risk factors.

Modifiable risks

  • Smoking and tobacco use -esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, liverand colorectalcancers.
  • Obesity – esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, liver, gallbladder and colorectal cancers.
  • Physical inactivity – colorectal and pancreatic cancers.
  • Diets low in fruits, vegetables and fiber and high in red and processed meats and foods are risk factors for most digestive cancers. Other dietary risk factors for specific cancers include: Charred meats (colorectal);smoked foods, salted fish and meat, and pickled foods (stomach).
  • Excess alcohol use – esophagus, liver, pancreatic, stomach and colorectal cancers.
  • Diabetes type 2 – liver, pancreas and colorectal cancers.
  • Infections such as hepatitis B and C (liver), human papillomavirus -HPV (anal and possibly esophageal) and Helicobacter pylori (stomach).
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) – esophageal cancer especially when it leads to a precancerous condition called Barrett’s Esophagus.

Non-modifiable risks:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD not IBS) for greater than 8 years – colorectal, bile duct and small intestine cancers.
  • Family history of cancer, adenomatous polyps and inherited genetic syndromes – stomach, colorectal and pancreatic cancers. Not everyone with cancer has a family history but the risk increases if there is cancer in one or more first degree relatives. See American Cancer Society for more information.
  • Age – all digestive cancers occur more often in people over 50-60 but there is a rise in younger adults for most of these cancers.
  • Gender – men are at higher risk for all digestive cancers except anal and gallbladder cancers.
  • Race and Ethnicity African Americans (colorectal, stomach and pancreatic); Ashkenazi Jews (colorectal and pancreatic)); Asian/Pacific Islanders (stomach and liver); Caucasians (esophageal adenocarcinoma); and Hispanic Americans (stomach). Go to the American Cancer Society to see more details.

Tips for Prevention and Early Detection ofDigestive Cancers:

Drink alcohol in moderation if you choose to drink.
Increase your knowledge of your family history and risk factors.
Get physically active* and move more. This includes not sitting for long periods.
Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in red and processed meats and foods.
Stop smoking and using any tobacco products.
Take extra pounds off or maintain a healthy weight.

Immunize yourself against preventable diseases like Hepatitis B.*
Observe your body for changes such as a change in bowel habits, blood in your stool, painful or difficulty swallowing, skin color changes (i.e. pale or yellow), worsening or persistent abdominal pain and unintentional weight loss.**
Notify your doctor if you have any abnormal symptoms. Discuss appropriate screening tests for your age and risk factors.

* Always check with your physician first.

**It helps to keep a log or record of your symptoms to help you and your physician determine what’s causing your problems.


American Cancer Society

American College of Gastroenterology

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP

Author Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP

Complex GI Cancer Nurse Navigator with Sarah Cannon Institute at Medical City Healthcare Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP is a nurse navigator specializing in complex GI health at Sarah Cannon at Medical City Plano in Plano, TX. She is also a certified chronic care professional health coach and enjoys educating patients and families.

More posts by Gwen Spector, RN, BSN, COCN, CCP

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