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What are stomach and oesophageal cancers?

Stomach cancer develops when cells in the lining of the stomach grow and divide in an abnormal way. Tumours can begin anywhere in the stomach, although most start in the glandular tissue found on the stomach’s inner surface (mucosa). This type of cancer is called adenocarcinoma of the stomach (also known as gastric cancer).

If it is not found and treated early, stomach cancer can spread through the lymphatic system to nearby lymph nodes or through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, such as the liver and lungs. It may also spread to the walls of the abdomen (peritoneum). Rarely, it can grow through the stomach wall into nearby organs such as the pancreas and bowel.

How common is stomach cancer?

About 2200 people are diagnosed with stomach cancer in Australia each year. Men are twice as likely as women to be diagnosed with stomach cancer. It is more common in people over 60, but it can occur at any age. About one in 130 men and one in 300 women are likely to develop stomach cancer before the age of 75.

Oesophageal cancer begins when abnormal cells develop in the innermost layer (mucosa) of the oesophagus. A tumour can start at any point along the length of the oesophagus. There are two main subtypes:

  • Oesophageal adenocarcinoma – often starts near the gastro-oesophageal junction and is linked with a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus. Adenocarcinomas are the most common form of oesophageal cancer in Australia.
  • Oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma – starts in the thin, flat cells in the lining of the oesophagus, which are called squamous cells. It often begins in the middle and upper part of the oesophagus. In Australia, squamous cell carcinomas are less common than adenocarcinomas.

If it is not found and treated early, oesophageal cancer can spread through the lymphatic system to nearby lymph nodes or through the bloodstream to other parts of the body, most commonly the liver and lungs. It can also grow through the oesophageal wall and invade nearby structures.

How common is oesophageal cancer?

This is an uncommon cancer. In Australia, about 1500 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer each year. Men are much more likely than women to be diagnosed with this cancer. It is more common in people over 60, but can occur in younger people. About 1 in 160 men and 1 in 580 women are likely to develop oesophageal cancer before the age of 75.

Some cancers start at the point where the stomach meets the oesophagus (the gastro-oesophageal junction). Depending on the type of gastro-oesophageal cancer, it may be treated similarly to stomach cancer or oesophageal cancer.

Some less common types of cancer can affect the stomach and oesophagus. These include small cell carcinomas, lymphomas, neuroendocrine tumours and gastrointestinal stromal tumours. These types of cancer aren’t covered on these web pages as treatment may be different. For more information about your situation, talk to your treatment team or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Featured resources

Oesophagogastric cancer - Your guide to best cancer care

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Understanding Stomach and Oesophageal Cancers

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed October 2019 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof David Watson, Senior Consultant Surgeon, Oesophago-gastric Surgery Unit, Flinders Medical Centre, and Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor of Surgery, Flinders University, SA; Kate Barber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Katie Benton, Advanced Dietitian, Cancer Care, Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service, QLD; Alana Fitzgibbon, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Gastrointestinal Cancers, Royal Hobart Hospital, TAS; Christine Froude, Consumer; Dr Andrew Oar, Radiation Oncologist, Icon Cancer Centre, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD; Dr Spiro Raftopoulos, Interventional Endoscopist and Consultant Gastroenterologist, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Grant Wilson, Consumer; Prof Desmond Yip, Clinical Director, Department of Medical Oncology, The Canberra Hospital, ACT.