A diagnosis of stomach cancer can be shocking for elderly patients. But thinking about common stomach cancer treatments like surgery, fractionated dose chemotherapy, radiation and biotherapy/immunotherapy can make you feel like you have some control. These forms of stomach cancer treatments for seniors may be performed separately, or together, depending on what your physician and oncologist prescribe.
Risk Factors for Stomach Cancer
Stomach cancer is a disease of the upper digestive system. Cancer cells begin in the mucosal cells, which are the innermost cells. The cancer cells then spread to the upper layers of cells. People who have certain risk factors are more likely to be diagnosed with stomach cancer at some time during the lives. However, having a risk factor does not mean that a person will definitely develop cancer.
Risk factors for stomach cancer include the following:
- Helicobactor pylori infection of the stomach
- Pernicious anemia
- Intestinal metaplasia
- Gastric polyps or familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
- Family members with diagnosed stomach cancer
- History of smoking
- Eating a diet high in salt or processed foods
- Being an older male
Detecting Stomach Cancer
There are some warning signs that, if they persist, you should have checked by your physician. The following symptoms are linked to early warning signs of stomach cancer:
- Mild nausea
- Difficulty swallowing
- Loss of appetite
- Blood in stools
- Bloating and stomach upset
- Unexpected weight loss
There are several tests that can be done to determine whether you have stomach cancer. A physical exam, blood chemistry and a complete blood count are done first. An upper endoscopy may be done if blood tests indicate a need for the procedure. An endoscopy is a procedure that uses a thin tube inserted into the mouth and down through the esophagus to the stomach. A small camera at the end of the tube allows the physician to look for anything unusual in the upper digestive system.
Current Stomach Cancer Treatments for the Elderly
Surgery is performed when the cancer is in the early stages. At this time it is easiest to remove most of the cancer cells and hopefully prevent further spreading of the diseased cells. Surgery may also be performed when a blockage in the intestines occurs. Surgery may also be recommended even after the cancer has spread. However, it becomes more difficult to remove all of the cancerous growths if they have spread rapidly, especially to the small intestines.
The length of the surgery depends on the stage of growth of the cancer and how much it has spread.
Fractionated Dose Chemotherapy
Fractionated dose chemotherapy is often prescribed as a stomach cancer treatment for the elderly. This form of chemotherapy is administered through a small port that has been placed in the patient's chest. Surgery is required to place the port in the chest and is usually done as outpatient surgery.
Typically, a patient undergoes chemotherapy treatment several times a week at a local hospital that has a specialized cancer treatment facility. The doses are spread out over several days so that the effects of the drugs aren't as hard on the body. This procedure also gives the treatment a longer time to kill the cancerous cells in the body. Patients usually spend an hour or two in a recliner and receive treatment through the port in their chest. Patients receive weekly blood tests to check their white blood cell counts. When the white cell counts become too low, this form of chemotherapy may be temporarily suspended to allow the body to recover. The number of weeks that this type of therapy occurs depends on the severity of the cancer and the diagnosis of the patient's oncologist.
Radiation therapy is often used in conjunction with other forms of cancer therapies. Radiation therapy is an external procedure, in which a beam of radiation is focused directly on the area where the cancer cells are. Current technology allows for intense radiation to the affected area with minimal damage to normal surrounding cells. Radiation therapy is usually done three-to-five days a week over an eight-week period. The procedure lasts only a few minutes. This type of therapy doesn't cause pain and is outpatient procedure. Patients can resume normal activities after it is done.
Biotherapy and Immunotherapy
Biotherapy and immunotherapy are forms of therapy that use a person's immune system to help fight cancer. The therapy either helps to strengthen the immune system or uses man-made immune system proteins to help fight cancerous cells. This form of therapy is usually used with other stomach cancer treatments for the elderly. Currently there isn't statistical data that supports whether or not biotherapy and immunotherapy assist in fighting stomach cancer.
For More Information
There is no one type of therapy that is guaranteed to eliminate cancer in a person diagnosed with the disease. However, there is much promising cancer research. The FDA is approving new cancer-fighting drugs each year in the United States, and many drugs are being developed in other countries as well. The good news is that many people can survive stomach cancer if they pay attention to warning signs and seek treatment early.
For more information on stomach cancer treatment for the elderly, review the following resources:
- The American Cancer Society site lets viewers find information about cancer by type, or search for resources as a patient, family member, or friend trying to understand the disease.
- For more information on specific treatments, turn to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
- CancerCare is a non-profit organization that helps provide professional support services to cancer patients.