Stomach cancer can cause persistent symptoms like stomach pain, heartburn, and indigestion. But, these symptoms can be vague and may be caused by other issues. Early diagnosis is crucial with cancer, which is why it’s so important to see a doctor if you have symptoms.

a person is sitting down touching their stomach as if they have stomach pain, a possible symptom of stomach cancerShare on Pinterest
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Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, is cancer that develops in your stomach. Cancer occurs when normally healthy cells begin to grow out of control and develop into a tumor.

In the United States, stomach cancer isn’t common. Fewer than 27,000 people were estimated to have received a diagnosis in 2022.

Because it’s not common, it’s also not regularly screened for, and early symptoms of stomach cancer are easy to miss. That’s why many people don’t receive a diagnosis until their cancer is at an advanced stage.

You may wonder if there’s a way to check yourself for stomach cancer, especially if you’re experiencing stomach issues like pain or diarrhea. The short answer is no. You need to see a doctor or healthcare professional if you suspect you have stomach cancer.

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of stomach cancer and why trying to give yourself a diagnosis isn’t a safe practice.

Why self-diagnosis is dangerous

There are thousands of websites offering health information on the internet. While some provide credible, medically reviewed information, many don’t.

Even if the online information is clinically accurate and vetted by medical experts, it’s not possible to diagnose yourself based solely on what you read, especially when it comes to complex chronic conditions like cancer.

If you have any concerning symptoms and suspect that you may have cancer or some other condition, the only way to get an accurate diagnosis is by seeing a medical professional.

They’ll review your medical and family history, do a physical exam, order diagnostic and blood tests, and rule out other possible causes before giving you a diagnosis.

Use the information you find on the internet to supplement what a doctor is telling you about your diagnosis and symptoms. But rely on the doctor for the best treatment advice for your condition.

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Many early signs and symptoms of stomach cancer are easily overlooked. Below, learn more about some of the early signs as well as symptoms of advanced stomach cancer.

Early symptoms of stomach cancer

  • Frequent heartburn: Heartburn occurs when stomach acid moves up your esophagus. It feels like an intense burning behind your breastbone and in your upper chest. Several different conditions can cause heartburn.
  • Indigestion or frequent burping: Discomfort in your stomach or upper abdomen and nausea are most likely symptoms of indigestion. This, like heartburn, isn’t always a symptom of a serious health issue, but persistent indigestion should be examined by a doctor.
  • Loss of appetite: Changes in appetite can signal health issues, from infections to medication reactions. If your appetite doesn’t return to normal in a few days, follow-up with a doctor.
  • Feeling full after eating only a small amount: This is known as early satiety. It’s sometimes experienced with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It can also be a symptom of cancer, including stomach cancer.
  • Excessive fatigue: A lack of energy might be the result of anemia, a condition that occurs when your body can’t make enough red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen throughout your body. Anemia is a symptom of many issues, including stomach cancer.
  • Persistent abdominal pain: A vague but chronic pain in your abdomen, usually above your navel, could be caused by many conditions. If the pain doesn’t go away or gets worse, it’s best to see a doctor.

Symptoms of advanced stomach cancer

Symptoms of advanced or metastatic stomach cancer include:

  • blood in your stool
  • lump at the top of your stomach that you can feel in your abdomen
  • nausea and vomiting
  • weight loss without a clear cause or explanation
  • swelling or fluid buildup in and around your abdomen
  • yellowing of your skin and eyes (jaundice), a symptom meaning that the cancer has reached your liver

Risk factors for stomach cancer include:

  • Age: Adults older than 60 years of age are more likely to receive a diagnosis of stomach cancer. But stomach cancer can also develop in people younger than 60 years old.
  • Sex: People assigned male at birth are twice as likely as people assigned female at birth to develop stomach cancer.
  • Ethnicity: Stomach cancer is more common in people who have Hispanic American, Native American, South American, Eastern European, or Asian American heritage.
  • Infections: Helicobacter pylori infections may increase your risk for stomach cancer.
  • Stomach polyps: These abnormal growths in the lining of your stomach may develop into cancer.
  • Some foods and overconsumption of alcohol: People who eat a lot of salted or pickled foods or grilled or charcoaled meats or drink a lot of alcohol may be more likely to develop stomach cancer.
  • Smoking: People who smoke have a higher risk of stomach cancer than people who don’t.
  • Overweight: People who have overweight or obesity tend to have higher rates of stomach cancer.
  • Inherited genetic syndromes: Several inherited syndromes, such as Lynch syndrome and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), may increase your risk of stomach cancer.

Most people in the United States who receive a diagnosis of stomach cancer receive it when they’re 60 years old or older. In fact, the average age to receive a diagnosis is 68 years old, and 6 in 10 people with stomach cancer are 65 years old or older.

However, in recent years, stomach cancer in younger people has been rising steadily. Today, more than 30% of stomach cancers in the United States are early onset gastric cancer, or cancer that develops when you’re younger than 45 years old.

It’s unclear what’s causing this rise, but increased obesity rates are thought to be a factor.

Stomach cancer is ruled out with diagnostic tests. These tests help doctors identify cancer or other issues that may explain any of the symptoms you’re experiencing.

These tests include:

  • Physical exam: A doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and may feel for abnormalities in your abdomen and stomach area.
  • Blood test: Blood samples can diagnose anemia or other possible causes. Anemia can be caused by many things, including bleeding in your stomach from a tumor.
  • Fecal tests: A fecal culture test can find bacteria in your stool that might explain your symptoms.
  • Upper endoscopy: An endoscopy uses a lighted tube with a small camera at one end to see the inside of your stomach and to look for polyps or other abnormal changes.
  • Biopsy: During an endoscopy, the doctor can do a biopsy, which involves removing a small piece of tissue from any abnormal spots in your stomach. This tissue is then analyzed under a microscope.
  • Imaging tests: X-rays, CT scans, PET scans, and MRIs can all be used to look for signs of cancer in your stomach and nearby organs.

You can’t completely prevent cancer, but you can take steps to lower your risk. These include the following preventive steps:

  • Maintain a moderate weight: Having overweight or obesity can increase your risk of stomach cancer, so maintaining a moderate weight can help reduce your risk.
  • Eat a diet filled with fruits and vegetables: A balanced diet includes plenty of plant foods.
  • Cut back on processed foods: Pickled vegetables, salted meats and fish, and grilled foods can increase your risk of stomach cancer. Try to avoid them or cut back significantly to reduce your risk.
  • Exercise regularly: Not only will regular physical activity help you maintain a moderate weight, but it may also reduce your cancer risk.
  • Avoid drinking too much alcohol: If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Stick with two or fewer standard drinks per day if you’re a person assigned male at birth, and one or fewer standard drinks per day if you’re a person assigned female at birth.
  • Kick the habit: Smoking increases your risk of stomach cancer, so avoiding it or quitting can reduce your risk.

Stomach cancer can cause persistent or unusual symptoms like stomach pain, heartburn, and indigestion. The early symptoms of stomach cancer can be vague and can be confused with other issues like infections or ulcers.

It’s not possible, or safe, to diagnose yourself when it comes to serious medical conditions like cancer. If you think you have symptoms of stomach cancer, make an appointment to see a doctor to rule out other possible causes and to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.