No matter where you are in your gastrointestinal cancer (also called GI cancer) journey, our experienced team is here for you every step of the way.
What is GI cancer?
GI cancer, or gastrointestinal cancer, refers to a group of cancers within the digestive system. Your GI tract (or digestive system) begins at the esophagus, continues through the body and ends at the Anus. Your GI system is hard at work each time you eat, helping you digest your food, delivering vital nutrients to your body and turning food into waste.
GI cancer develops when normal, healthy cells in the GI tract begin to grow and function differently. These cancerous cells build up and form a mass called a tumor, which exists as a lump inside the body and can spread.
Types of GI cancer
Because your GI system is large, there are several types of GI cancers:
- Anal cancer – This type of cancer occurs when cancerous cells develop within the rectum, a small organ found at the end of your large intestine.
- Bile duct cancer – This uncommon form of cancer develops within bile ducts, the tubes that connect your liver, gallbladder and small intestine. These tubes are responsible for carrying bile from the liver to the gallbladder in order to break down fats.
- Colorectal cancer – Colon cancer and rectal cancer, commonly grouped together as colorectal cancer, is the second most common type of cancer in the United States.
- Esophageal cancer – This type of cancer forms in the esophagus, the long hollow tube that connects your throat to your stomach.
- Gallbladder cancer – This rare type of cancer occurs in the gallbladder, a small, pouch-like organ that stores bile produced by your liver.
- Gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) – This type of GI tumor occurs anywhere within the walls of the GI tract.
- Liver cancer – Tumors that form in the liver can be either primary or secondary liver cancer. Cancerous cells can form or spread to the liver, bile ducts or blood vessels.
- Pancreatic cancer – This type of cancer forms in the pancreas, a small gland responsible for producing digestive enzymes.
- Small intestine cancer – This type of intestinal cancer forms in various areas of the small intestine.
- Stomach cancer – This type of cancer can form in the stomach or somewhere within its lining or walls.
What are the symptoms of GI cancer?
In its early stages, GI cancer may not show any symptoms. However, for different types and stages of cancer, symptoms vary and may include:
- Blood in your stool
- Rectal or anal pain, itching or bleeding
- Bloating, especially after eating
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
- Weakness or fatigue
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
- Persistent fever
Having these symptoms does not mean you have GI cancer. In fact, there are several conditions that can cause similar symptoms, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease and polyps. If you’re having symptoms, it’s still important to speak to your doctor to rule out other health conditions.
Risk factors for GI cancer
Certain behaviors, genetics and risk factors can increase your chances of developing a GI Malignancy. These include:
- Smoking: Tobacco use, including smokeless tobacco, cigarettes and pipes, increases your risk of developing GI cancer.
- Exposure to H. pylori bacteria: Found in contaminated water, exposure to this type of bacteria can cause stomach ulcers, inflammation and an increased risk of developing cancer.
- Family history: If you have a family member who has been diagnosed with GI cancer or other gastric conditions, you are at risk of developing GI cancer increases.
- History of digestive issues: If you’ve previously had colon polyps, diverticulitis, colitis or certain liver conditions, your risk for developing certain types of GI cancer increases.
- Age: Your risk of developing a GI cancer increases as you get older, with most people being diagnosed between ages 60 and 70.
- Other risk factors: Other risk factors that can increase your risk of developing GI cancer include:
- Exposure to certain industrial chemicals
- Having the Epstein-Barr virus
- Excessive alcohol use
- Being overweight
- Eating a diet high in sodium or fatty meats
How is GI cancer diagnosed?
Screening tests that use the most advanced technology can detect GI cancers in their earliest stages, when they’re most treatable. Some of the diagnostic tests your doctor may perform to test for GI cancers include:
- Blood tests –These tests can rule out any issues with your GI system that may be unrelated to cancer, such as Crohn’s disease or IBS.
- Biopsy – During a biopsy, your doctor removes a small sample of tissue using a thin needle or during a surgical procedure. The tissue is examined beneath a microscope to detect whether any cancerous cells (also called malignant cells).
- Endoscopy – During this procedure, your doctor inserts a small scope into your mouth to examine the hard-to-see areas of your GI tract.
- Colonoscopy – Colonoscopies are the best way to detect colon cancer early. The procedure is simple, typically takes under an hour and you’ll be able to return to normal activities the following day.
- Ultrasound – Ultrasounds take an image of your organs using sound waves. Your doctor will look at these pictures to decide if there are any concerning issues.
- Imaging tests – Diagnostic imaging tests, such MRIs, CT scans and PET scans, are used to produce detailed pictures of your GI system. They can determine the size of tumors and whether they have grown or shrunk, or whether cancerous cells have spread to other areas of the body.
Gastrointestinal cancer treatment
Your team of gastrointestinal cancer specialists includes surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, nurse navigators and support staff. And they’ll all work together to develop a personalized plan to best treat your GI cancer.
Depending on the type, location and stage of your cancer, one or more of the following treatments may be recommended.
Chemotherapy is a drug-based treatment designed to slow the growth of or shrink tumors. Chemotherapy drugs can be given through an IV or taken in a pill form. The appropriate treatment will be recommended by your oncologist.
Your chemotherapy may be given:
- Before your surgery, to attempt to reduce the size of the tumor
- After your surgery, to destroy any cancer that remains in the area and reduce the chances of the cancer coming back
- Along with radiation therapy, which together are known as chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy
Our team includes doctors called medical oncologists who specialize in chemotherapy. You’ll also have access to clinical trials that include testing new chemotherapy drugs and combinations of medications that aren’t widely available.
Staying comfortable while you undergo treatment is important. Our state-of-the-art clinics, many of which have been recently renovated, offer heated seats and individual TVs to help you relax during treatment.
Radiation oncology uses radiation to control or destroy harmful cancer cells, with tools to treat each unique cancer.
Your clinical team can offer conventional radiotherapy treatments that include:
- External beam radiation, which uses special technology to send X-ray radiation (photons) to the tumor from outside the body
- Internal radiation (brachytherapy), which targets the tumor using safe levels of radiation inside the body through radioactive tubes or radioactive seeds
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), which uses a 3D image of the tumor to deliver high-precision radiotherapy that fits its exact outline
- Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT), which is used to localize the radiation beam daily and treat cancers in areas of the body that move during and between treatments. This includes cone beam CT scans to accurately view the tumor and target it during treatment.
- Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT), which uses precise conformal beams of radiation to focus high doses of radiation to just the tumor, with very little damage to surrounding healthy tissues
GI cancer care at Geisinger
Your cancer journey is just that — yours. We understand how personal it is, which is why our cancer care team gets to know you along your journey. While some of our cancer specialists are trained in treating specific cancers, our entire team works together to help you fight your cancer.
You need innovative treatments and personalized cancer care. That’s why we offer:
- The knowledge you need – Your cancer team is powered by surgeons, doctors and specialists with years of training and experience. Their expertise has been honed by treating many people with GI cancer every year. And their focus is on delivering the care best suited to your needs.
- Care from all sides – Cancer isn’t simple, so we put all our best minds to work on it. Your care team is multidisciplinary, which means it has many physicians from different specialties who come together to create a personalized treatment plan for you. That means you can see your care team in one location, all during the same visit.
- Care designed for you, where you live – With locations throughout northeast, central and south-central Pennsylvania, our experienced cancer team provides consultations and comprehensive care. We offer leading-edge treatment options and tailored-to-you care, backed by the expertise and innovation of a nationally recognized health system.
- Comprehensive specialty care – From chemotherapy, radiation and minimally invasive surgery options to national clinical trials and genetic testing, our GI cancer specialists are dedicated to offering innovative treatment options and personalized care in convenient locations, so you don’t have to travel far. We’ll work with you to develop a personalized care plan based on your individual needs.
- GI high-risk malignancy clinic – We offer a unique experience for patients with an inherited risk for developing a GI cancer. The high-risk multidisciplinary clinic is one of the few clinics in the country the specialize in screening and prevention for our high risk population. Our team includes cancer specialist who are experts in treating and counseling patients who have an inherited syndrome and the goal of this clinic is to help you understand your risk. Our team will help you implement ways to decrease your risk of developing a GI cancer. Our team includes oncologists, genetic counselors, surgeons, internists and psychologists all focused on helping you to get the best possible care. If you’re identified as being at higher risk for developing GI cancer because of an inherited syndrome, we’ll help you learn about prevention. Together, we’ll determine which tests or treatments are right for you and make a personalized care plan.
- Backed by a whole transplant team – For GI cancer affecting your liver, a transplant may be the lifesaving care you need. If a liver transplant is right for you, we’ll help you find a donor as soon as possible. Learn more about transplant surgery.
- Leading-edge clinical trials – Our cancer research and clinical trials give you access to new treatments before they become widely available. Participating in a trial may help you get better even if standard approaches haven’t worked. Find a clinical trial.
- Genetic testing and counseling programs – Our cancer genetics programs determine whether you face a higher-than-normal cancer risk. Special programs such as MyCode®, which are only available at Geisinger, detect the earliest signs of certain cancers so you can start treatment right away. Our care and guidance may even help you avoid a cancer diagnosis. Learn about MyCode.
- Cancer survivorship program – Just because your treatment is complete doesn’t mean your journey has ended. We offer a variety of support resources focused on helping you live your healthiest life. Learn about patient resources.