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This section outlines treatments that are the standard of care (the best proven treatments available) for this specific type of cancer. When making treatment plan decisions, patients are also encouraged to consider clinical trials as an option. A clinical trial is a research study to test a new treatment to evaluate whether it is safe, effective, and possibly better than standard treatment. Your doctor can help you review all treatment options. For more information, see the Clinical Trials and Current Research sections.
In cancer care, different types of doctors often work together to create a patient’s overall treatment plan that combines different types of treatments. This is called a multidisciplinary team. For stomach cancer, the team of doctors may include a gastroenterologist (a doctor who specializes in the gastrointestinal tract, including the stomach and intestines), a surgeon, a medical oncologist, and a radiation oncologist.
Stomach cancer may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. Descriptions of these common treatment options for stomach cancer are listed below. Often, a combination of these treatments is used. It can be difficult to cure stomach cancer because it is often not detected until it is at an advanced stage. Treatment options and recommendations depend on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, possible side effects, and the patient’s preferences and overall health. Learn more about making treatment decisions.
Surgery is the removal of the tumor and surrounding tissue during an operation. A surgical oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer using surgery. The type of surgery will depend on the stage of the cancer (see Staging).
In early stages (stages 0 or I), when the cancer is still contained within the stomach, treatment usually consists of surgery to remove the affected part of the stomach and nearby lymph nodes. For a very early stage (T1a) cancer, some doctors may recommend a non-surgical treatment called endoscopic mucosal resection (removal of the tumor with an endoscope; see Diagnosis).
If the cancer has spread to the outer stomach wall or to more than three lymph nodes (stages II or III), surgery plus either chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be used. The surgeon can perform a subtotal or partial gastrectomy (removal of part of the stomach) or a total gastrectomy (removal of all of the stomach). During a gastrectomy, the surgeon attaches the esophagus directly to the small intestine. In a partial gastrectomy, the surgeon connects the remaining part of the stomach to the esophagus or small intestine. After this surgery, the patient will only be able to eat a small amount of food at a time.
Gastrectomy is a major surgery and can have serious complications or side effects. One common side effect is a group of symptoms known as dumping syndrome, which includes cramps, nausea, diarrhea, and dizziness after eating. This happens when food enters the small intestine too fast. The doctor can suggest ways to avoid this and can prescribe medication to help control these symptoms. The symptoms usually disappear in a few months, but in some cases, they may be permanent. Patients who have their entire stomach removed will need regular injections of vitamin B12 because they will no longer be able to absorb this essential vitamin through their stomach.
Regional lymph nodes are often removed during surgery (lymphadenectomy) because the cancer may have spread to those lymph nodes. There is still debate as to how extensive the lymphadenectomy should be. In Europe and especially in Japan, more lymph nodes are routinely removed than in the United States.
When the cancer is diagnosed as Stage IV, surgery is typically not a primary treatment recommendation (see Metastatic stomach cancer, below).
Learn more about cancer surgery.
Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy x-rays or other particles to kill cancer cells. A doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer is called a radiation oncologist. A radiation therapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of treatments given over a set period of time. Patients with stomach cancer usually receive external-beam radiation therapy, which is radiation given from a machine outside the body. Radiation therapy may be used before surgery to shrink the size of the tumor or after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells.
Side effects from radiation therapy include fatigue, mild skin reactions, upset stomach, and loose bowel movements. Most side effects go away soon after treatment is finished.
Learn more about radiation therapy.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, usually by stopping the cancer cells’ ability to grow and divide. Systemic chemotherapy is delivered through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Chemotherapy is given by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medication. A chemotherapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of cycles given over a set period of time. A patient may receive one drug at a time or combinations of different drugs at the same time.
Chemotherapy can be given by mouth (orally) or injection. The goal of chemotherapy can be to destroy cancer remaining after surgery, slow the tumor’s growth, or reduce cancer-related symptoms. It also may be combined with radiation therapy. Currently, there is no single standard chemotherapy treatment plan that is used worldwide. However, most chemotherapy treatments are based on the combination of at least two drugs, fluorouracil (5-FU, Adrucil) and cisplatin (Platinol). Newer drugs similar to 5-FU (such as capecitabine or Xeloda) and similar to cisplatin (such as oxaliplatin or Eloxatin) appear to be equivalent. Other drugs commonly used include docetaxel (Taxotere), paclitaxel (Taxol), irinotecan (Camptosar), and epirubicin (Ellence).
In addition, patients whose stomach tumors have too much of the protein HER2 (called HER2-positive cancer) may benefit from the addition of trastuzumab (Herceptin) to chemotherapy in advanced stomach cancer. For more information about targeted therapies, such as trastuzumab, see the Current Research section.
The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the individual and the dose used, but they can include fatigue, risk of infection, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. These side effects usually go away once treatment is finished.
Learn more about chemotherapy and preparing for treatment. The medications used to treat cancer are continually being evaluated. Talking with your doctor is often the best way to learn about the medications prescribed for you, their purpose, and their potential side effects or interactions with other medications. Learn more about your prescriptions by using searchable drug databases.
Cancer and its treatment often cause side effects. In addition to treatment to slow, stop, or eliminate the cancer, an important part of cancer care is relieving a person’s symptoms and side effects. This approach is called palliative or supportive care, and it includes supporting the patient with his or her physical, emotional, and social needs.
Palliative care can help a person at any stage of illness. People often receive treatment for the cancer and treatment to ease side effects at the same time. In fact, patients who receive both often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and report they are more satisfied with treatment.
Before treatment begins, talk with your health care team about the possible side effects of your specific treatment plan and supportive care options. And during and after treatment, be sure to tell your doctor or another health care team member if you are experiencing a problem, so it is addressed as quickly as possible. Learn more about palliative care.
Recurrent stomach cancer
A remission is when cancer cannot be detected in the body and there are no symptoms. This may also be called “no evidence of disease” or NED.
A remission can be temporary or permanent. This uncertainty leads to many survivors feeling worried or anxious that the cancer will come back. While many remissions are permanent, it’s important to talk with your doctor about the possibility of the cancer returning. Understanding the risk of recurrence and the treatment options may help you feel more prepared if the cancer does return. Learn more about coping with the fear of recurrence.
If the cancer does return after the original treatment, it is called recurrent cancer. It may come back in the same place (called a local recurrence), nearby (regional recurrence), or in another place (distant recurrence).
When this occurs, a cycle of testing will begin again to learn as much as possible about the recurrence. After testing is done, you and your doctor will talk about your treatment options. Often the treatment plan will include the therapies described above (such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy) but may be used in a different combination or given at a different pace. Your doctor may also suggest clinical trials that are studying new ways to treat this type of recurrent cancer.
People with recurrent cancer often experience emotions such as disbelief or fear. Patients are encouraged to talk with their health care team about these feelings and ask about support services to help them cope. Learn more about dealing with cancer recurrence.
Metastatic stomach cancer
If cancer has spread to another location in the body (called Stage IV), it is called metastatic cancer.
Patients with this diagnosis are encouraged to talk with doctors who are experienced in treating this stage of cancer, because there can be different opinions about the best treatment plan. Learn more about seeking a second opinion before starting treatment, so you are comfortable with the treatment plan chosen. This discussion may include clinical trials.
The goal of treatment at this stage is typically to prolong life and increase the patient’s comfort since metastatic stomach cancer is not considered curable. Any treatment, including chemotherapy or radiation therapy, is considered palliative therapy. The role of surgery is limited, and the primary treatment is usually chemotherapy. It is important to note that studies indicate that the use of palliative chemotherapy can improve both the length and quality of life.
Given the inability to cure metastatic stomach cancer, this diagnosis is stressful, and at times, difficult to bear. Patients and their families are encouraged to talk about the way they are feeling with doctors, nurses, social workers, or other members of the health care team. It may also be helpful to talk with other patients, including through a support group.
If treatment fails
Recovery from cancer is not always possible. If treatment is not successful, the disease may be called advanced or terminal cancer.
This diagnosis is stressful, and this is difficult to discuss for many people. However, it is important to have open and honest conversations with your doctor and health care team to express your feelings, preferences, and concerns. The health care team is there to help, and many team members have special skills, experience, and knowledge to support patients and their families. Making sure a person is physically comfortable and free from pain is extremely important.
Palliative care given toward the end of a person’s life is called hospice care. You and your family are encouraged to think about where you would be most comfortable: at home, in the hospital, or in a hospice environment. Nursing care and special equipment can make staying at home a workable alternative for many families. Learn more about advanced cancer care planning.
After the death of a loved one, many people need support to help cope with the loss. Learn more about grief and bereavement.
Find out more about common terms used during cancer treatment.