Gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are common medical conditions. Most people have experienced upset stomach, indigestion, nausea, vomiting, gas in the GI tract, or changes in bowel habits (e.g., diarrhea, constipation).
Digestive disorders usually are minor conditions that resolve relatively quickly without medical treatment. They often are associated with intestinal viruses or bacteria and treatment involves reducing the risk for complications, such as dehydration, anemia, and secondary infections.
However, severe symptoms and symptoms that do not resolve or recur (i.e., chronic symptoms) require medical treatment. In some cases, even minor symptoms can indicate a GI emergency.
Esophageal cancer is cancer that occurs in the esophagus — a long, hollow tube that runs from your throat to your stomach. Your esophagus helps move the food you swallow from the back of your throat to your stomach to be digested.
Esophageal cancer usually begins in the cells that line the inside of the esophagus. Esophageal cancer can occur anywhere along the esophagus. More men than women get esophageal cancer.
Esophageal cancer is the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Incidence rates vary within different geographic locations. In some regions, higher rates of esophageal cancer cases may be attributed to tobacco and alcohol use or particular nutritional habits and obesity.
Stomach cancer usually begins in the mucus-producing cells that line the stomach. This type of cancer is called adenocarcinoma.
For the past several decades, rates of cancer in the main part of the stomach (stomach body) have been falling worldwide. During the same period, cancer in the area where the top part of the stomach (cardia) meets the lower end of the swallowing tube (esophagus) has become much more common. This area of the stomach is called the gastroesophageal junction.
The small intestine is a long, coiled tube that funnels digested food from the stomach into the colon (the large intestine). Along the way, the digested material is further broken down and nutrients and amino acids are absorbed.
The material first enters the duodenum, one of three sections of the small intestine where digestion is aided by enzymes secreted by the pancreas and bile from the liver. The middle section, the jejunum, propels the food into the ileum, the final and longest section food travels through before being emptied into the colon. Absorption of vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates and nucleic acids happens as the food moves through the jejunum and ileum.
Tumors in the small intestine may block the flow of food and affect digestion. As the tumor gets bigger, the blockages may cause pain in the abdomen. A slowly bleeding tumor may lead to anemia. Digested blood may cause the stool to become black or tarry. An obstruction—when the flow of food is completely blocked—may cause intense pain, nausea and vomiting and typically requires immediate surgery.
The rectum is the last several inches of the large intestine. It starts at the end of the final segment of your colon and ends when it reaches the short, narrow passage leading to the anus.
Cancer inside the rectum (rectal cancer) and cancer inside the colon (colon cancer) are often referred to together as “colorectal cancer.”
While rectal and colon cancers are similar in many ways, their treatments are quite different. This is mainly because the rectum sits in a tight space, barely separated from other organs and structures in the pelvic cavity. As a result, complete surgical removal of rectal cancer is challenging and highly complex. Additional treatment is often needed before or after surgery — or both — to reduce the chance that the cancer will return.
In the past, long-term survival was uncommon for people with rectal cancer, even after extensive treatment. Thanks to treatment advances over the past 30 years, rectal cancer can now, in many cases, be cured.
Anal cancer is an uncommon type of cancer that occurs in the anal canal. The anal canal is a short tube at the end of your rectum through which stool leaves your body.
Anal cancer can cause signs and symptoms such as rectal bleeding and anal pain.
Most people with anal cancer are treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. Though combining anal cancer treatments increases the chance of a cure, the combined treatments also increase the risk of side effects.
Anal cancer forms when a genetic mutation turns normal, healthy cells into abnormal cells. Healthy cells grow and multiply at a set rate, eventually dying at a set time. Abnormal cells grow and multiply out of control, and they don’t die. The accumulating abnormal cells form a mass (tumor). Cancer cells invade nearby tissues and can separate from an initial tumor to spread elsewhere in the body (metastasize).
Gallbladder cancer is cancer that begins in the gallbladder.
Your gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ on the right side of your abdomen, just beneath your liver. The gallbladder stores bile, a digestive fluid produced by your liver.
Gallbladder cancer is uncommon. When gallbladder cancer is discovered at its earliest stages, the chance for a cure is very good. But most gallbladder cancers are discovered at a late stage, when the prognosis is often very poor.
Gallbladder cancer is difficult to diagnose because it often causes no specific signs or symptoms. Also, the relatively hidden nature of the gallbladder makes it easier for gallbladder cancer to grow without being detected.
Pancreatic cancer begins in the tissues of your pancreas — an organ in your abdomen that lies horizontally behind the lower part of your stomach. Your pancreas releases enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that help manage your blood sugar.
Pancreatic cancer typically spreads rapidly to nearby organs. It is seldom detected in its early stages. But for people with pancreatic cysts or a family history of pancreatic cancer, some screening steps might help detect a problem early. One sign of pancreatic cancer is diabetes, especially when it occurs with weight loss, jaundice or pain in the upper abdomen that spreads to the back.
Treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination of these.