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Treatment for stomach cancer

The most important factor in planning treatment for stomach cancer is the stage of the disease, particularly whether the tumour has spread from its original location. Treatment will also depend on your age, medical history, nutritional needs and general health.

Surgery to remove the tumour is the main treatment for stomach cancer that has not spread. If the cancer has spread, treatment may also include chemotherapy, targeted therapy or radiation therapy.

Preparing for treatment

Improve diet and nutrition – People with stomach or oesophageal cancer often lose a lot of weight and can become malnourished. Your doctor will usually refer you to a dietitian for advice on ways to reduce the weight loss through changes to your diet, liquid supplements or a feeding tube. This will help improve your strength, lessen side effects, and lead to better treatment outcomes.

Stop smoking – If you are a smoker, you will be encouraged to stop smoking before surgery. If you continue to smoke, you may not respond as well to treatment and smoking may make any side effects you experience worse. For support, see your doctor or call the Quitline on 13 7848.

Surgery aims to remove all of the stomach cancer while keeping as much normal tissue as possible. The surgeon will remove some healthy tissue around the cancer to reduce the risk of the cancer returning. You may have an endoscopic resection or a gastrectomy depending on where the tumour is growing and how advanced the cancer is.

Endoscopic resection (ER)

Very early-stage tumours that have not spread from the stomach walls may be removed with an endoscope. For some people, an endoscopic resection may be the only treatment needed. This is usually an overnight-stay procedure. Preparation and recovery are similar to endoscopy, but there is a higher risk of bleeding or getting a small tear or hole in the stomach (perforation).

Gastrectomy

This procedure removes part or all of the stomach, leaving as much healthy tissue as possible. The goal is to completely cut out the cancer, including any nearby affected lymph nodes.

Subtotal or partial gastrectomy – The cancerous part of the stomach is removed, along with nearby fatty tissue (omentum) and lymph nodes. The upper stomach and oesophagus are usually left in place.

Total gastrectomy – The whole stomach is removed, along with nearby fatty tissue (omentum), lymph nodes and parts of nearby organs, if necessary. The surgeon reconnects the oesophagus to the small bowel. The top part of this connection (which is a tube of intestine) takes over some of the stomach’s function.

Lymphadenectomy (lymph node dissection)

As the cancer might have spread to nearby lymph nodes, your doctor will usually remove some lymph nodes from around your stomach. This reduces the risk of leaving any cancer behind.

How the surgery is done

The surgery will be done under a general anaesthetic. There are two ways to perform a gastrectomy:

  • in a laparotomy (open surgery), the procedure is done through a long cut in the upper part of the stomach
  • in a laparoscopy (keyhole surgery), the surgeon will make some small cuts in the abdomen, then insert a thin instrument with a light and camera (laparoscope) into one of the cuts. The surgeon inserts tools into the other cuts and performs the surgery using the images from the camera for guidance.

The hospital stay and recovery time are fairly similar for both types of surgery. Laparoscopic surgery usually means a smaller scar, however, open surgery may be considered a better option in many situations.

Risks of stomach surgery

As with any major surgery, stomach surgery has risks. These may include infection, bleeding, increased strain on the heart and lungs, damage to nearby organs, or leaking from the connections between the small bowel and either the oesophagus or stomach. Some people experience an irregular heartbeat, but this usually settles in a few days. You will be carefully monitored for any side effects.

Download our booklet ‘Understanding Surgery’

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. For stomach cancer, chemotherapy is commonly given before surgery to shrink large tumours and destroy any cancer cells that may have spread. It may also be used after surgery to reduce the chance of the disease coming back. Chemotherapy is also used palliatively.

Chemotherapy is usually given as a liquid through a drip inserted into a vein in the arm. It may also be given through a tube implanted into a vein (called a port, catheter or vascular access device), or as tablets you swallow. You will usually receive treatment as an outpatient.

Most people receive a combination of drugs in repeating cycles spread over several months. There may be a rest period of 2–3 weeks between each cycle of chemotherapy. Your doctor will talk to you about how long your treatment will last.

Side effects of chemotherapy

The side effects of chemotherapy vary greatly for each person. Some people have few side effects, while others have many. Most side effects are temporary, but some may last longer or be ongoing. Your medical oncologist or nurse will discuss the likely side effects with you, including how they can be prevented or controlled with medicine.

Side effects may include feeling sick (nausea), vomiting, sore mouth or mouth ulcers, appetite changes and difficulty swallowing, skin and nail changes, numbness in the hands or feet, ringing in the ears or hearing loss, constipation or diarrhoea, and hair loss or thinning. You may also be more likely to catch infections.

Download our booklet ‘Understanding Chemotherapy’

This is a type of drug treatment that attacks specific features of cancer cells to stop the cancer growing and spreading.

HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) is a protein that causes cancer cells to grow uncontrollably. If you have HER2 positive advanced stomach or gastro-oesophageal junction cancer, you may be given a targeted therapy drug called trastuzumab. This drug destroys the HER2 positive cancer cells or slows their growth. Trastuzumab is given with chemotherapy every three weeks through a drip into a vein.

Another targeted therapy drug called ramucirumab aims to reduce the blood supply to a tumour to slow or stop its growth. It has been approved to treat advanced stomach or gastro-oesophageal junction cancer that has not responded to chemotherapy. Ramucirumab is not subsidised on the PBS so it is expensive (as at October 2019).

You may be able to access other new drugs to treat stomach cancer through clinical trials. Talk to your doctor about the latest developments and whether there are any suitable clinical trials for you.

Side effects of targeted therapy

Ask your doctor what side effects you may experience. Possible side effects of trastuzumab include fever and nausea. In some people, trastuzumab can affect the way the heart works. Possible side effects of ramucirumab include stomach cramps, diarrhoea and high blood pressure. Let your doctor know of any side effects immediately.

Download our fact sheet ‘Understanding Targeted Therapy’

Also known as radiotherapy, this treatment uses a controlled dose of radiation to kill or damage cancer cells. Radiation therapy for stomach cancer is commonly used to control symptoms. It is usually given externally as a short course (between one day and two weeks). Occasionally radiation will be given over a longer period (5–6 weeks), particularly if surgery is not possible, or there are concerns about cancer cells being left behind after surgery.

Each treatment takes about 15 minutes and is not painful. You will lie on a table under a machine that delivers radiation to the affected parts of your body. Your doctor will advise you about your treatment schedule. Potential side effects include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, skin redness and loss of appetite (anorexia).

Download our booklet ‘Understanding Radiation Therapy’

 

Palliative treatment aims to help maintain a person’s quality of life by managing the symptoms of cancer without trying to cure the disease. Many people think that palliative treatment is for people at the end of life, but it can help at any stage of advanced stomach cancer.

The treatment you are offered will be tailored to your individual needs, and may include surgery, stenting, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or other medicines. These treatments can help manage symptoms such as pain, bleeding, difficulty swallowing and nausea. They can also slow the spread of the cancer.

Download our booklet ‘Understanding Palliative Care’