In recent years, new treatment approaches have been developed to treat gastric cancer.

Gastric cancer is relatively rare compared to other types of cancer, with about 28,000 new cases diagnosed in the United States annually. It mostly occurs in people over age 65 and is more common in men than in women. More than 90 percent of gastric cancers are adenocarcinomas, meaning they start from cells located in the glands of the stomach.

The stages of adenocarcinomas and other forms of gastric cancer describe how far the cancer has spread at the time of diagnosis. The stage of the cancer will guide treatment options.

Stage 0 The cancer is limited to the mucosa (the innermost layer of the stomach wall).

Stage IA The cancer has spread completely through the mucosa but has not spread to lymph nodes or the muscularis (the middle layer of the stomach wall).

Stage IB The cancer has spread completely through the mucosa and has also spread to the muscularis or to six or fewer lymph nodes.

Stage II The cancer has spread completely through the mucosa and is found in the muscularis and one or more lymph nodes, or is found in the wall of the serosa (outermost layer of the stomach) but is not found in lymph nodes or other organs.

Stage III The cancer has spread completely through the muscularis and is found in the wall of the serosa and one or more lymph nodes.

Stage IV The cancer is found in organs next to the stomach or in other parts of the body.

Stages 0 and IA

Stages 0 and IA gastric cancers are best treated by minimally invasive endoscopic surgery, in which the doctor removes the tumor through an endoscope (lighted tube) that is inserted into the stomach through the mouth. Endoscopic surgery is best done by a gastroenterologist with experience in these complex procedures. Alternatively, a gastrectomy (surgical removal of part or all of the stomach) and lymphadenectomy (removal of the nearby lymph nodes) can be performed, but this is more invasive surgery and should be avoided if possible. Typically, no additional therapy beyond surgery is needed.

Stages IB, II and III

Stage IB, II or III gastric cancer is treated with a total or partial gastrectomy and lymphadenectomy. Chemotherapy may be given both before surgery to shrink the cancer and after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells. If chemotherapy is not given prior to surgery, it may still be given after surgery, especially if cancer cells are found in the removed lymph nodes. Chemoradiation (chemotherapy plus radiation therapy) may also be given after surgery, but that approach is becoming increasingly less common. People who are not able to undergo surgery are often treated with chemotherapy, radiation or chemoradiation.

Stage IV

Treatments for stage IV gastric cancer are designed to shrink the tumor and help relieve symptoms. The primary treatment approaches are chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. Surgery, radiation or chemoradiation may also be considered, but are less common.

Surgery

When surgery is part of the treatment plan for gastric cancer, the approach depends on the stage of the cancer and other factors unique to the individual.

  • Subtotal (partial) gastrectomy. In a subtotal gastrectomy, the cancerous portion of the stomach is removed. Most often, a subtotal gastrectomy is performed if the cancer is in the lower portion of the stomach (near the intestines), although it may sometimes be performed if the cancer is in the upper portion of the stomach. Depending on the stage of the cancer, other organs or tissues close to the cancerous part of the stomach may also be removed, including the omentum (a layer of fatty tissue that covers the stomach and intestines), the spleen or portions of the esophagus or small intestine.

    A subtotal gastrectomy includes a step that allows the digestive tract to continue to function. If the lower portion of the stomach has been removed, the surgeon connects the upper portion of the stomach to the small intestine. If the upper portion of the stomach has been removed, the surgeon attaches the lower portion of the stomach to the esophagus.

  • Total gastrectomy. If the cancer has spread throughout the stomach, a total gastrectomy (the removal the entire stomach) is performed. Additionally, this type of surgery is often recommended if the cancer is located in the upper part of the stomach. In a total gastrectomy, the surgeon also removes the omentum and may remove the spleen and parts of the esophagus, intestines, pancreas and other nearby organs. The end of the esophagus is attached to part of the small intestine to allow food to continue to move through the intestinal tract.

Chemotherapy

Systemic (whole body) chemotherapy, designed to destroy cancer cells, has long been an important approach in the treatment of gastric cancer. Most systemic chemotherapy treatments for gastric cancer combine at least two drugs. In neoadjuvant (before surgery) treatment, common drug combinations include:

  • Docetaxel, oxaliplatin and fluorouracil/leucovorin (FLOT)
  • Oxaliplatin plus either 5-FU or capecitabine (called FOLFOX or Capeox)

The combination treatments (FLOT, FOLFOX or Capeox) may also be given as an adjuvant (after surgery) treatment. A single drug, such as 5-FU or capecitabine, is sometimes used as adjuvant treatment for people who may not be able to tolerate combination therapy.

Other chemotherapy drugs used to treat gastric cancer include paclitaxel and irinotecan.

In February 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the chemotherapy combination of trifluridine/tipiracil (Lonsurf) for the treatment of metastatic (advanced) adenocarcinoma treated with at least two previous chemotherapy regimens (courses of treatment). Trifluridine works by stopping the growth of cancer cells, while tipiracil helps the trifluridine work longer by stopping it from being broken down by the body. This chemotherapy combination is taken as a pill.

Radiation

Radiation therapy as a treatment approach for gastric cancer has become less common in recent years. It is not typically given before surgery, but can be used to destroy small traces of cancer that could not be seen and removed during surgery. In those cases, “external beam” radiation is the type of radiation generally administered. External beam radiation uses a machine that directs a beam (or multiple beams) of radiation to the cancer. The use of CT (computerized tomography), MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and PET (positron emission tomography) scans allow radiation oncologists to accurately target the cancer, helping to spare healthy tissues.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy focuses on specific molecules and cell mechanisms thought to be important for cancer cell survival and growth, taking advantage of what researchers have learned in recent years about how cancer cells grow.

There are two targeted therapies approved by the FDA for the treatment of stage IV gastric cancer:

  • Trastuzumab (Herceptin). HER2, a growth-promoting protein found on the surface of some cancer cells, is present in approximately 20 percent of gastric cancers. Trastuzumab binds to and blocks the HER2 protein and is often added to chemotherapy for people whose cancer is HER2-positive. Trastuzumab is given intravenously (into a vein).

  • Ramucirumab (Cyramza). VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) is a protein that contributes to angiogenesis (blood vessel growth), which can lead to the growth and spread of cancer. Ramucirumab blocks the action of VEGF and can be given by itself or added to paclitaxel chemotherapy. It is given intravenously.

In June 2019, the FDA approved trastuzumab-anns (Kanjinti), a biosimilar to trastuzumab, for the treatment of HER2-positive stage IV gastric cancer. Although not an exact copy of the original drug, biosimilars are expected to produce the same clinical result and have no clinically meaningful differences in terms of safety, purity or potency.

Other targeted therapy drugs to treat gastric cancer are currently being studied in clinical trials.

Immunotherapy

Our immune system is constantly working to keep us healthy. It recognizes and fights against danger, such as infections, viruses and growing cancer cells. In general terms, immunotherapy uses our own immune system as a treatment against cancer.

In 2017, the FDA approved the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab (Keytruda) to treat certain advanced gastric cancers. The approval applies to gastric cancers that have recurred (come back) or continued to grow after at least two previous chemotherapy regimens. To be treated with pembrolizumab, the cancer cells must also test positive for the PD-L1 protein, a molecular “brake” that prevents the body’s immune system from attacking cancer cells. About 60 percent of gastric cancers are PD-L1 positive.

Pembrolizumab, which is given intravenously, has also been approved to treat any type of cancer that has a genetic or molecular trait known as high microsatellite instability (MSI-H), which causes tumors to have a large number of genetic mutations. A small percentage of gastric cancers are MSI-H and can be treated with pembrolizumab.

Other immunotherapy approaches are currently being studied in clinical trials.

All cancer treatments can cause side effects. It’s important that you report any side effects that you experience to your health care team so they can help you manage them. Report them right away—don’t wait for your next appointment. Doing so will improve your quality of life and allow you to stick with your treatment plan. It’s important to remember that not all patients experience all side effects, and patients may experience side effects not listed here.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the type and dose of drugs given and the length of time they are used, and can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Hair loss
  • Increased risk of infection (from having too few white blood cells)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Peripheral neuropathy (numbness or tingling in hands and feet)

Side Effects of Radiation

Changes to the skin are the most common side effects of radiation therapy; those changes can include dryness, swelling, peeling, redness and blistering. If a reaction occurs, contact your health care team so the appropriate treatment can be prescribed. It’s especially important to contact your health care team if there is any open skin or painful areas, as this could indicate an infection. Infections can be treated with an oral antibiotic or topical antibiotic cream.

Side Effects of Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy drugs don’t have the same effect on the body as do chemotherapy drugs, but they can still cause side effects. Some of the potential side effects of the targeted therapies used to treat gastric cancer include weakening of the heart muscles, high blood pressure, protein in the urine and problems with wound healing.

Side Effects of Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy travels through the bloodstream, helping to prompt what is called an “immune response.” Because immunotherapy can attack healthy cells as well as cancer cells, certain side effects may be experienced, including difficulty breathing, rash/itching and diarrhea.

Some side effects may occur across treatment approaches. This section provides tips and guidance on how to manage these side effects should they occur.

Managing Digestive Tract Symptoms

Nausea and vomiting

  • Avoid food with strong odors as well as overly sweet, greasy, fried or highly seasoned food.
  • Eat meals cold or at room temperature, which often makes food more easily tolerated.
  • Nibble on dry crackers or toast. These bland foods are easy on the stomach.
  • Having something in your stomach when you take medication may help ease nausea.

Diarrhea

  • Drink plenty of water. Ask your doctor about using drinks such as Gatorade that provide electrolytes. Electrolytes are body salts that must stay in balance for cells to work properly.
  • Over-the-counter medicines such as loperamide (Imodium A-D and others) and prescription medications are available for diarrhea but should be used only if necessary. If the diarrhea is bad enough that you need medicine, contact a member of your health care team.
  • Choose foods that contain soluble fiber, like beans, oat cereals and flaxseed, and high-pectin foods such as peaches, apples, oranges, bananas and apricots.
  • Avoid foods high in refined sugar and those sweetened with sugar alcohols such as sorbitol and mannitol.

Loss of appetite

  • Eating small meals throughout the day is an easy way to take in more protein and calories, which will help maintain your weight. Try to include protein in every meal.
  • To keep from feeling full early, avoid liquids with meals or take only small sips (unless you need liquids to help swallow). Drink most of your liquids between meals.
  • Keep high-calorie, high-protein snacks on hand such as hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter, cheese, ice cream, granola bars, liquid nutritional supplements, puddings, nuts, canned tuna or trail mix.
  • If you are struggling to maintain your appetite, talk to your health care team about whether appetite-building medication could be right for you.

Managing Fatigue

Fatigue (extreme tiredness not helped by sleep) is one of the most common side effects of many cancer treatments. If you are taking a medication, your doctor may lower the dose of the drug, as long as it does not make the treatment less effective. If you are experiencing fatigue, talk to your doctor about whether taking a smaller dose is right for you.

There are a number of other tips for reducing fatigue:

  • Take several short naps or breaks during the day.
  • Take walks or do some light exercise, if possible.
  • Try easier or shorter versions of the activities you enjoy.
  • Ask your family or friends to help you with tasks you find difficult or tiring.

There are also prescription medications that may help, such as modafinil. Your health care team can provide guidance on whether medication is the right approach for your individual circumstances.

Managing Pain

There are a number of options for pain relief, including prescription and over-the-counter medications. It’s important to talk to a member of your health care team before taking any over-the-counter medication to determine if it is safe and to make sure it will not interfere with your treatment. Many pain medications can lead to constipation, which may make your pain worse. Your doctor can prescribe medications that help to avoid constipation.

Physical therapy, acupuncture and massage may also be of help in managing your pain. Consult with a member of your health care team before beginning any of these activities.

As you manage your gastric cancer, it’s important to remember that you are a consumer of health care. The best way to make decisions about health care is to educate yourself about your diagnosis and get to know the members of your health care team, including doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, dietitians, social workers and patient navigators. Here are some tips for improving communication with your health care team:

Start a health care journal. Having a health care journal or notebook will allow you to keep all of your health information in one place. You may want to write down the names and contact information of the members of your health care team, as well as any questions for your doctor.

Prepare a list of questions. Before your next medical appointment, write down your questions and concerns. Because your doctor may have limited time, ask your most important questions first and be as specific as possible.

Bring someone with you to your appointments. Even if you have a journal and a prepared list of questions or concerns, it’s always helpful to have support when you go to your appointments. The person you bring may also think of questions to ask your doctor or remember details about your symptoms or treatment that you may have forgotten.

Write down your doctor’s answers. Taking notes will help you remember your doctor’s responses, advice and instructions. You can also ask the person who accompanies you to take notes for you, either in your journal or on a tablet or smartphone.

Record your visit if your doctor allows it. Recording the conversation with your doctor gives you a chance to hear specific information again or share it with family members or friends. Incorporate other health care professionals into your team. Your medical oncologist is an essential member of your health care team, but there are other health care professionals who can help you manage your diagnosis and treatment:

  • Your primary care physician should be kept updated about your cancer treatment and any test results.

  • Gastroenterologists specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the digestive system and are an important part of the multi-disciplinary team approach in the treatment of people with gastric cancer.

  • Your local pharmacist is a great source of knowledge about the medications you are taking. Have all of your prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy to avoid the possibility of harmful drug interactions.

  • Make sure your oncologist knows of any other medical conditions you have or any pain you are experiencing so that they can consult with your primary care physician or specialist as needed.

Remember, there is no such thing as over-communication.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Are there gene mutations or inherited conditions that increase the risk of developing gastric cancer?

A: Certain gene mutations and some inherited conditions are considered risk factors for gastric cancer, including:

  • BRCA1 and BRCA2. Although inherited mutations on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are often associated with a higher risk of breast cancer, people who have inherited these genetic mutations are also at an increased risk for gastric cancer.
  • Lynch syndrome. Lynch syndrome is a hereditary disorder caused by a mutation in a mismatch repair gene. Most commonly Lynch syndrome is associated with an increased risk for colon cancer, but it also increases the risk of gastric and other cancers.
  • Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). Often caused by mutations on the APC gene, FAP significantly increases a person’s risk of colorectal cancer and may also play a smaller role in increasing the risk of developing gastric cancer.
  • E-cadherin/CDH1. Though rare, people who inherit this genetic mutation have a significantly increased risk of developing gastric cancer in their lifetime. When this genetic mutation is present, there is often a family history of gastric cancer or lobular breast cancer, a specific type of breast cancer that begins in the milk-producing glands (lobules) of the breast.

Testing is available for gene mutations that make a person more likely to develop gastric cancer. A doctor or genetic counselor can help the individual and their family understand the test results.

Q: What is an endoscopic resection?

A: In an endoscopic resection, the surgeon passes an endoscope (a flexible tube with a lighted video camera on the end) into the stomach through the throat. Surgical tools are then passed through the endoscope to remove the cancer and part of the stomach wall around the cancer.

Endoscopic resection is increasingly used to treat early-stage gastric cancers, where the risk of the cancer spreading to the lymph nodes is very low. If you are considering an endoscopic resection, your health care team can help you find a medical center that has experience with this surgical procedure.

Q: What is a treatment summary and why is important?

A: A treatment summary, sometimes called a “shadow chart,” is a document that you create and keep in your possession. Maintaining your own records allows you and your family members to have instant access to the specifics of your gastric cancer diagnosis and treatment. A treatment summary should include:

  • Your name and date of birth
  • Date of diagnosis
  • Prescribed therapy/therapies, including dates started and stopped and dosages when appropriate
  • Dates and types of post-diagnosis testing, and the results of these tests
  • Other medications and supplements you are taking
  • Names, affiliations and contact information of all members of your health care team.

Talk to your doctor or a member of your health care team about your intention to create a treatment summary, and ask what else they suggest be included. Take your treatment summary with you when you visit any doctor, not just your oncologist or gastroenterologist.

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This booklet was made possible by Daiichi Sankyo.

Last updated February 18, 2020

The information presented in this publication is provided for your general information only. It is not intended as medical advice and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultations with qualified health professionals who are aware of your specific situation. We encourage you to take information and questions back to your individual health care provider as a way of creating a dialogue and partnership about your cancer and your treatment.

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