Dr Lui Hock Foong
Gastrointestinal (GI) cancer refers to cancers that affect the digestive system.
According to the Singapore Cancer Registry Annual Registry Report 2015, the most common gastrointestinal (GI) cancers are:
It is the most common type of (GI) cancer afflicting 17.2% of men and the second most common in women at 13.4%.
This is the next most common GI cancer, affecting 7.5% of men in Singapore.
Rounding off the top 3, it afflicts some 4.7% of men and 3.4% of women.
Colorectal cancer begins in the colon or large intestine, with the formation of small growths known as polyps. While they are mostly non-cancerous, they can sometimes develop into cancerous growths. It is more likely to affect those above 50 years of age, with a family history of colorectal cancer, or those who suffer from inflammatory bowel disease. Other risk factors include being physically inactive, overweight or obese. Smoking and alcohol consumption are further risk factors.
Liver cancer usually develops from infection with the hepatitis B virus (HBV). However we are seeing an alarming increase in cases of liver cancer caused by fatty liver.
Stomach cancer is commonly associated with gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), obesity, family history of stomach cancer, and infection with Helicobacter pylori. Other risk factors include a diet that is high in smoked and salted foods and low in fruits and vegetables. Smoking and anaemia from vitamin B12 deficiency are further risk factors.
Symptoms of gastrointestinal cancers may be easily missed, as they seem mild or unalarming, especially in the early stages. However, if symptoms persist, it's important to get them checked as more than half the cases diagnosed between 2011 and 2015 were discovered at late stages, which reduces the chances of successful treatment.
Furthermore, 1 in 5 of these were under the age of 55 years, indicating that there is a need to educate younger adults to recognise symptoms and seek medical advice without delay.
A gastroenterologist (a specialist on the body's digestive system) will review your family history and symptoms before recommending specific tests.
Most cancers, when detected early, offer a good chance for successful treatment. Symptoms of gastrointestinal cancers may be easily overlooked or ignored as an easily treated medical issue, such as indigestion and that it will go away on its own. This could lead to a delay in diagnosis and treatment. Early detection improves the chances for successful treatment, so vigilance and regular screenings are essential.
It's best to seek medical advice promptly from a gastroenterologist or doctor if you suspect something might be wrong. Simply put, when it comes to detection and treatment, sooner is better than later.
There is no certain way to prevent gastrointestinal cancers but lifestyle changes can reduce the risk. The most important changes to make for cancer prevention are: stop smoking, limit or avoid alcohol, eat a balanced and nutritious diet, and get active.
For gastrointestinal cancers, additional steps can help:
If you have a family history of cancer, have 1 or more risk factors, or if you notice any symptoms, speak to a gastroenterologist for advice.