26 Aug 2020
The mention of the word “Cancer” usually sends shivers down one’s spine. Understandably so. The helplessness and despondency associated with this disease, when diagnosed in late stages, is unparalleled. Gastrointestinal cancers are notorious for presenting late. Picking the right clues and diagnosing this ailment early is what helps the most. As Tata Memorial Hospital for cancer often says “CANCER IS CURABLE, IF DETECTED EARLY”.
Knowing the symptoms helps one seek medical care early.
Some general symptoms which raise a red flag for cancer, especially in aged population, are:
- Unintended significant weight loss in a short duration of time.
- Loss of appetite (significant decrease in hunger, eating very less quantities).
- Lump in body (usually of recent onset or with recent rapid increase in size)
- Alteration of bowel habits (new onset diarrhoea / constipation or even narrowing of the calibre of stools lasting more than a few days)
Affection of various organs of the gastrointestinal tract leads to one of the following specific complaints:
- Progressively worsening difficulty in swallowing is common in patients with carcinoma esophagus (food pipe). When it starts patients find swallowing solids more difficult than swallowing liquids. With progress of disease however swallowing everything becomes a task and often patients cannot even swallow saliva.
- Persistent recurrent large volume vomiting is often seen with cancer of stomach. It is not unusual for food consumed couple of days ago to come out in the vomitus (the lesion often blocks the outlet of stomach resulting in abnormal accumulation of consumed food).
- Presence of either fresh red blood in stools or of dark maroon coloured stools (altered blood mixed with stools) is an ominous sign warranting further investigations. Not all patients with this symptom will have Cancer but it’s worth evaluating. If Iron deficiency anaemia (low haemoglobin levels in blood due to decreased availability of iron) is seen in elderly males , the suspicion of colorectal cancer (cancer of large intestine) is very high.
- Tenesmus is common in cancer of rectum (distal most 6 inches of the large intestine). Patients have an almost constant urge to defecate but don’t pass any stools. They often have to visit the washroom multiple times in a day.
- Fluctuating or a persistently increasing jaundice (yellowish discolouration of eyes) is common in lesions of pancreas, bile ducts & gallbladder. Mechanical obstruction of normal flow of bile (the fluid produced in liver) leads to jaundice. It is often accompanied by high coloured dark yellow urine, clay coloured white stools & severe itching all over body.
If the cancer is detected at an early stage when it has not yet spread to distant sites, the chances of having good results with treatment (Surgery +/- Chemotherapy +/- Radiotherapy) increase manifold.
Dr Hemant Jain
Ms Mch (GI surgery).
Laparoscopic and GI surgeon.
Specialist in laparoscopic surgeries, GI cancer surgeries.
Visiting consultant :
Nanavati hospital. Bombay Hospital. Criticare Hospital Andheri. Upasani Hospital Mulund (W).