The digestive system is a crucial part of the body. It takes in food and helps to digest and process nutrients from the food we eat.
Like most of the body, it’s unfortunately vulnerable to various forms of cancer. The Gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) is a type of soft tissue sarcoma that forms in the digestive system. It’s very common in the stomach and in the small intestine. These tumors start in interstitial cells of Cajal before they grow.
In many cases, stromal tumors grow but are benign and not particularly dangerous. In other cases, the tumors can be cancerous. Smaller tumors can be hard for doctors to detect. This suggests that the 5000 cases per year found in the United States is likely much lower than the actual amount of cases out there.
Causes of Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors
The vast majority of cases of people suffering from a GIST comes from genetic mutations. Science has been able to pinpoint exactly which genes are responsible too. About 8 of every 10 cases of gastrointestinal stromal tumors come from a mutation of the KIT gene. Another 1 of every 10 cases comes from a mutation in the PDGFRA gene. The remaining cases may come from another gene mutation, or in some cases from a specific inherited mutation.
It’s possible for anyone to develop a GIST. The most common people however range from the age of 50 to the age of 70. It’s incredibly rare for these tumors to occur in someone under the age of 40, but it’s still technically possible.
Symptoms of Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors
The size of the GIST can make a big difference in symptoms appearing or showing. The smaller minor tumors often show none whatsoever and don’t really have a negative effect on the body if they are benign and non cancerous. Some of the symptoms that can occur include:
- Abdominal Pain - The tumors can cause general pain to occur in the abdomen region.
- Growths - These are physical growths that can be felt by pressing down on the abdomen.
- Nausea - Many people with larger tumors may feel like they need to vomit.
- Vomiting - This is one of the symptoms that will often trigger a visit to a doctor that helps find a diagnosis.
- Anemia - Stromal tumors can often cause some bleeding in the digestive system. Slow bleeding tumors can cause anemia due to the lost blood and oxygen it should be carrying throughout the body.
- Weight Loss - It’s possible to lose weight unexpectedly and not feel an interest in eating if you suffer from a stromal tumor. Some people also have trouble swallowing.
Treating Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors
If a doctor feels that a stromal tumor could be present, they will order tests to determine the extent of it and whether or not it’s cancerous. Treatment will vary greatly based on the results of these tests. For small tumors, it’s likely that the wait and watch approach can be taken.
For cancerous tumors, there’s two main options. The first is targeted drug therapy. This will use a specific drug that affects the cancerous cells and helps eliminate them through weaknesses in their structure. This can be used before surgery or after surgery to avoid a recurrence after surgery has occurred. Targeted drug therapy is a facet of cancer research that continues to grow and expand.
The second option was briefly mentioned above, but is surgery. If a person has a symptomatic or large GIST, they will be surgically removed if it’s possible. In some cases, the surgery can be very easy and done with minimal invasion. In other cases, the tumors can be located near and affect too many organs. In those cases, attempts to shrink the tumor need to be made first.