Gastro-Intestinal (GI) cancer is a term for the group of cancers that affect the digestive system. This includes cancers of the oesophagus, gallbladder, liver, pancreas, stomach, small intestine, bowel (large intestine or colon and rectum), and anus.
GI cancer is the most common form of cancer. More than 24,000 Australians are diagnosed with it each year and 33 Australians die of it each day.
GI cancers do not discriminate between men and women.
The GI Cancer Institute aims to fundraise for, and raise awareness about GI cancer. It’s important that we improve survival rates for GI cancer.
• Our survival rates are lower than for other more well known cancers. The five-year survival rate of people with cancer of the stomach is 27%, bowel 67% – and only 7% of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer live more than five years.
• In 2012, more than 12,000 people died of gastro-intestinal cancers –more than twice the combined total for breast and prostate cancers.
Our clinical trials are designed to find better treatments.
Treatment for GI cancer will depend on the type of cancer, the stage or its development, and other health factors. Treatment commonly includes surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Below is more information about types of GI cancer.
Bowel, Small Intestine and Anal Cancers
Bowel cancer is sometimes known as colorectal cancer. The bowel is part of the body’s digestive system, which connects the stomach to the anus. Together the large colon (large intestine) and rectum are known as the bowel. Bowel cancer is a diseased growth that usually develops inside the large bowel. Most bowel cancers develop from small growths inside the colon or rectum called polyps, which look like small spots on the bowel lining or like cherries on stalks.
Not all polyps become cancerous. A test called a colonoscopy, involving a tube inserted into the bowel, is used to test for polyps. If polyps are detected and removed, the risk of bowel cancer is reduced.
Bowel (or colorectal) cancer is the most common internal cancer in Australia, with over 15,000 new cases diagnosed each year. Small intestine and anal cancers are relatively rare, each with around 400 new diagnoses a year.
Gallbladder cancer is cancer of the biliary tract which is quite rare in Western societies but not uncommon in Asia-Pacific countries including Australia, Korea and Japan. In 2011, 771 Australians were diagnosed with biliary tract cancer, with half the cancers found in the gall bladder and the other half in the biliary tree.
Unfortunately, most people are diagnosed with biliary tract cancer once the tumour is too large to remove surgically or has spread to other areas of the body. This means that only 10%-30% of people with the disease are eligible for surgery — with the aim of a cure. Even so, the survival rate for these people is still very low – the average five-year survival rate for all patients is only 18.5%. For those who are ineligible for surgery, chemotherapy remains the main treatment option. At present, there is no chemotherapy regimen that has been shown to specifically help people live longer.
Stomach Cancer, GIST and NETs
The stomach is a muscular sack-like organ that receives and stores food from the oesophagus. Once the food is broken down, it is passed from the stomach to the small bowel, where nutrients begin to be absorbed into the bloodstream.
Most stomach cancers develop in cells that line the mucosa and are called adenocarcinoma of the stomach. Stomach cancer (also known as gastric cancer) develops slowly – it may take many years before any symptoms are felt.
Just over 2,000 people are diagnosed with stomach cancer each year. This figure includes a small number of people diagnosed with gastrointestinal stromal tumours (GIST) or neuroendocrine tumours (NETs) – relatively rare cancers that are found mostly in the stomach but can occur elsewhere in the digestive system. Their symptoms and progress vary widely.
The liver is a key organ in the body. It produces bile, which breaks down the fats in food so that they can be absorbed from the bowel. The liver helps process fats and proteins, some of which are essential for blood clotting. The liver stores glycogen which is made from sugars to fuel the body. It also helps to process alcohol, some medicines, toxins and poisons to remove them from the body.
Just over 1,400 people are diagnosed with primary liver cancer in Australia each year. These are cancers that arise from liver cells that have become malignant.
In addition to these people, there are those who have secondary liver cancers – originating from cancers from other organs such as the colon or rectum spreading (metastisising) to the liver. This will occur in about 40% of people suffering from bowel cancer.
The oesophagus is the food pipe that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. The oesophagus has three main sections – the upper, middle and lower. Cancer can develop anywhere along the length of the oesophagus.
Glands in the wall of the oesophagus produce mucus to help food slide down more easily when swallowing. These glands can become cancerous to produce adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus, which is the most common type of cancer seen in Western countries (the other most common type is squamous cell carcinoma).
There are around 1,400 new diagnoses of oesophageal cancer a year in Australia.
The pancreas is a thin, lumpy gland that lies between the stomach and spine. It is about 13 cm long and is joined by a special duct (the pancreatic duct) to the first part of the small bowel (called duodenum). The pancreas plays two major roles in the body: to produce insulin, which controls the amount of sugar in the blood; and to produce enzymes, which help in food digestion.
Pancreatic cancer begins in the lining of the pancreatic duct. It spreads into the body of the pancreas before moving into the blood vessels and nerves around the pancreas, obstructing the bile duct. Cancer that develops in the pancreas may also spread via the blood or the lymphatic system to other parts of the body.
If diagnosed early, cancerous tumours in the pancreas are usually removed by surgery. However, this is not always possible as the cancer is often detected after it has spread from the pancreas to outlying tissues and organs.
Just over 2,700 people in Australia are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year.