Stomach ulcers and stomach cancer can both cause abdominal pain and other gastrointestinal symptoms, but there are some differences. Both conditions can be serious and require medical attention.

The first symptom of a stomach ulcer is often a burning pain near the center of your abdomen. This pain often gets worse after eating.

The initial symptom of stomach cancer may be abdominal pain, but other symptoms like unexplained weight loss or vomiting are also common.

Many other conditions can cause similar symptoms, such as:

  • gastritis
  • pancreatitis
  • gallbladder disease

Read on to learn more about how you can tell stomach cancer and stomach ulcers apart.

Stomach cancer, stomach ulcers, and other GI conditions can all cause similar symptoms. The only way to know for sure what’s causing your symptoms is to visit a doctor for testing.

Abdominal pain without other symptoms like weight loss, loss of appetite, or vomiting blood is more likely to be caused by a stomach ulcer than stomach cancer. Usually, stomach ulcer pain is described as burning and occurs between your breastbone and belly button.

Healthcare professionals can help you tell the difference between a stomach ulcer and stomach cancer with various tests.

Tests to look for stomach cancer include:

Tests to look for signs of a stomach ulcer include:

Stomach cancer rarely causes symptoms in the early stages. Most cancers are detected once they’ve grown large or spread to other tissues.

According to the American Cancer Society, potential symptoms of stomach cancer include:

In a 2020 study, researchers found that weight loss was the first symptom of stomach cancer in 65% of people in a group of 210 people diagnosed at one hospital in Thailand.

The most common symptom of a stomach ulcer is usually burning or gnawing pain in your abdomen. Pain can last from minutes to hours and often gets worse after eating. Antacids may relieve the pain temporarily.

Less common symptoms include:

  • heartburn or indigestion
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • unintentional weight loss

Here’s a brief look at how stomach ulcers and stomach cancer pain symptoms vary.

Stomach ulcerStomach cancer
Symptoms in the early stagesmay not cause symptoms until the ulcer grows largerarely causes symptoms in the early stages
Common first symptomsburning abdominal painweight loss, persistent abdominal pain, loss of appetite, vomiting
Type of painupper abdominal pain above your belly button that may move into your backupper abdominal pain above your belly button that may move into your back

Most stomach ulcers are noncancerous, but it is possible for some to transform into cancer. Research suggests that cancer rates are anywhere between 2.4% and 21% in stomach ulcers that were diagnosed by endoscopy.

In a 2018 study with 111 people, researchers found that 37.8% of giant stomach ulcers were cancerous. They defined giant ulcers as those greater than 3 centimeters (1.2 inches) across.

In a 2022 study, researchers found that people with a history of ulcers had a more than 3 times increased risk of developing stomach cancer than people without a history of ulcers.

Contracting the bacterium Helicobacter (H.) pylori is a risk factor for developing both stomach cancer and ulcers. H. pylori is very common, though. It’s estimated to affect about 36% of U.S. people.

The majority of cases of adenocarcinoma, the most common type of stomach cancer, are attributed to H. pylori. It also causes about 70–90% of stomach ulcers.

Stomach cancer doesn’t usually cause symptoms in the early stages.

When symptoms do appear, they can mimic those of other gastrointestinal conditions, including a stomach ulcer.

Stomach ulcers can lead to life threatening internal bleeding if left untreated. This is why it’s important to get medical attention if you think you might have a stomach ulcer.

People often have symptoms for weeks to months before seeking medical attention.

With treatment, most stomach ulcers usually heal within a couple of months. Some small stomach ulcers may heal on their own without treatment, but most continue to get larger.

Learn more about how long it takes to treat a stomach ulcer.

Stomach ulcer treatments

Treatment for a stomach ulcer can vary depending on the underlying cause. Most people with stomach ulcers have H. pylori. Antibiotics and a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) are often recommended for these ulcers. Sometimes, you’ll receive an H2-receptor antagonist instead of a PPI.

PPIs and H2-receptor antagonists reduce the amount of stomach acid your body produces. They’re usually prescribed for 4–8 weeks.

According to the National Health Service, the most prescribed antibiotics are:

  • amoxicillin
  • clarithromycin
  • metronidazole

Antacids may also help relieve symptoms. Lifestyle habits may support your body’s ability to heal. They include avoiding or minimizing:

In rare cases, a stomach ulcer may need surgical treatment.

Stomach cancer treatments

Doctors often use a combination of treatments for stomach cancer. The treatment plan they recommend depends on factors such as:

  • your age
  • your overall health
  • the stage of your cancer
  • the subtype of your stomach cancer

The main treatments for stomach cancer include:

Learn more about the treatment options for stomach cancer.

Stomach cancers and stomach ulcers can both cause abdominal pain. For ulcers, the most common first symptom is a sharp, burning pain in your abdomen that gets worse after eating.

Many people with stomach cancer have unintentional weight loss as their first symptom. Some people experience discomfort between their breastbone and belly button.

Both stomach cancer and stomach ulcers require prompt medical treatment. If you have any potential symptoms of either condition, reach out to a healthcare professional as soon as possible.