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Screening is key to catching some GI cancers

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In partnership with Fox45

March 24, 2022
Some of the most common cancers occur in the 25-foot pathway called the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. The organs that facilitate nutrient absorption—from the esophagus to the stomach to the colon—are all part of the GI tract, and all are at risk for developing cancer.

Gang Chen, MD, PhD, Medical Oncologist and Hematologist in the Sandra and Malcolm Berman Cancer Institute at GBMC HealthCare, says, “GI cancers are the third most common cancer types for men and the second most common for women.”

The most common types of GI cancers are:
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Gastric (stomach) cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Liver cancer
While family history and genetics can play a role in some patients’ chances of developing these types of cancers, lifestyle is usually a much bigger factor when it comes to risk level.

“Just like other cancer types, smoking, drinking, and lack of physical activity are all linked to GI cancers,” Dr. Chen says. “Only 25% of colon cancer cases are associated with family history; 75% of diagnoses don’t have any family history.”

To potentially lower risk, Dr. Chen recommends modifying behaviors to preserve your overall health.

“We recommend regular exercise, avoiding excessive red meat consumption and alcohol, and staying away from smoking,” he says. Regardless of inherent risk, there is one thing everyone can do to improve the chances of catching cancer early, especially when it comes to colorectal cancer: regular screenings.

“For colon cancer, the recommended screening age is 40 or 45, depending on family history,” Dr. Chen explains. “If we pick up a tumor or polyps at an early stage, we can usually perform surgery and stop the cancer before it spreads. It can save your life.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 62% of patients eligible for screening have had a colonoscopy. Unfortunately, there is currently no screening test to detect early-stage pancreatic cancer, which makes living a healthy lifestyle even more important, Dr. Chen says.

Treatment for the different GI cancers varies based on many factors.

“At GBMC, we tailor the treatment for the individual,” Dr. Chen says. “The same diagnosis can have very different treatment plans depending on the tumor location, tumor stage, and size. We characterize the tumor to the molecular level.”

Dr. Chen says the team at the Berman Cancer Institute at GBMC does more than just treat the cancer; they treat the whole patient.

“We see more cancer patients than any other community hospital in Maryland,” he says. “Between support services and integrative medicine, we factor in every aspect of a patient’s life when it comes to treatment, even providing help for their families in dealing with the diagnosis.”
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