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World Digestive Health Day 2024: 5 deadly digestive cancers and how to prevent them



In the modern era, the cases of gastrointestinal cancers have seen an uptick due to wrong lifestyle choices be it processed food or inactivity. Digestive cancers or gastrointestinal cancers are more common among men and the risk may increase with age. Gastrointestinal cancers include tumours of the colon, rectum, stomach, pancreas, oesophagus, anus, gallbladder, liver, and bile duct. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, increasing age, viral and bacterial infections, chronic pancreatitis, and obesity are some of the key causes of digestive cancers. (Also read: Should you drink water before, during or after the meals? How it impacts your digestion)

Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, increasing age, viral and bacterial infections, chronic pancreatitis, and obesity are some of the key causes of digestive cancers.(Pixabay)

People with gastrointestinal cancer may experience bowel as well as urinary incontinence, severe abdominal ache, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, difficulty in swallowing and unexplained weight loss. The risk of colorectal cancer increases with age, obesity, physical inactivity, a diet rich in processed or red meat, alcohol consumption, and long-term smoking.

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In case of colorectal cancer, the second most common malignancy in the US, apart from genetic factors, environmental risk factors too play a role. Cancer of the rectum may be linked to sexually transmitted infections, chronic inflammation, and cigarette smoking.

“Digestive cancers encompass a range of malignancies affecting various organs along the digestive tract, including the oesophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, colon, and rectum. These cancers pose significant health challenges globally. Understanding the different types of digestive cancers and adopting preventive strategies are crucial steps in combating these diseases. Symptoms of digestive cancers vary depending on the specific type but may include persistent indigestion, abdominal pain and unexplained weight loss among others,” says Dr Rajat Bajaj, Director – Medical Oncology, Fortis Hospital, Noida.

Types of digestive cancers

On the occasion of World Digestive Health Day, here’s all you want to know about the main types of digestive cancers.

1. Oesophageal cancer

“Food pipe is where oesophageal cancer develops. Squamous cell carcinoma and adenocarcinoma are the two known main types. Squamous cell carcinoma typically arises in the upper and middle parts of the oesophagus, while adenocarcinoma often occurs in the lower part, near the stomach,” says Dr Bajaj.

“Oesophageal and gastric cancers are the cancers of your food pipe and your stomach. There are certain environmental risk factors like H. pylori is a bacterial infection which also causes gastric cancer. Another thing is regarding environmental factors in diet. Ecological studies have suggested a strong association between the risk of gastric cancer with high intake of salt and traditional salt-preserved food,” says Dr Pooja Babbar, Consultant, Medical Oncology, CK Birla Hospital, Gurugram.

2. Stomach cancer

Also known as gastric cancer, it affects the lining of the stomach. Risk factors include infection with Helicobacter Pylori bacteria, a diet high in salted, smoked, or pickled foods, and smoking, says Dr Bajaj.

3. Pancreatic cancer

This cancer is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage, which makes it challenging to treat. Risk factors include smoking, obesity, chronic pancreatitis, and family history.

“Pancreatic cancer is quite a lethal cancer. Diabetes, glucose, metabolism, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome are some of its risk factors. There is a strong association between diabetes and pancreatic cancer. It has been seen that long-term diabetic patients eventually develop pancreatic cancer or vice-versa. Again, almost 90% of digestive tract cancers are related to environmental risk factors, so by modifying the environmental factor we can reduce the risk,” says Dr Babbar.

4. Liver cancer

“Liver cancer can originate in the liver itself (primary liver cancer) or spread from other parts of the body (metastatic liver cancer). Chronic infections with hepatitis B or C viruses, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, and exposure to certain chemicals are among the risk factors,” says Bajaj.

“Cancer of liver and intrahepatic biliary duct is the sixth most common diagnosed malignancy and the third most common cancer cause of cancer-related mortality worldwide. It is often caused by viral hepatitis infections, predominantly hepatitis B which progresses to cirrhosis and ultimately to cancer. So we have hepatitis B and hepatitis C viral infection, which does not get cleared away and leads to a higher risk of HCC. Other risk factors include betel nut chewing, alcohol consumption, obesity, physical inactivity, and diabetes. Hepatitis B vaccination can help in prevention,” says Dr Babbar.

5. Colorectal cancer

This is the third most common cancer worldwide. It typically begins as a small growth, which is called a polyp, that develops to be cancerous over time. Risk factors include age, family history, inflammatory bowel disease etc, says Dr Bajaj.

“Colon cancer is now becoming the third most common cancer in males, and the incidence is increasing worldwide. Patients with a family history of colon cancer or hereditary colorectal syndromes or certain syndromes like adenomatous polyposis syndrome (FAP), MAP, or Lynch syndrome are at increased risk of colon cancer. These members inherit faulty genes which mutate and cause cancer. For patients with a positive family history of cancer, early colonoscopies, yearly screening tests, genetic counselling, and testing for certain genetic mutations can help in early diagnosis. Enhanced screening can be done for individuals with a positive family history of hereditary colorectal syndromes or sporadic colorectal cancer,” says Dr Babbar.

Prevention strategies

When it comes to development of digestive cancers, modern lifestyle can pose a great risk. Dr Bajaj shares preventive tips to avoid these cancers:

• Maintain a healthy diet: A diet rich in fibres and lean proteins can help reduce the risk of digestive cancers. Limiting intake of processed and red meats, as well as avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, is advisable.

• Quit smoking: Tobacco use is a significant risk factor for various types of cancer, including those affecting the digestive system. Quitting smoking can substantially lower the risk of developing these cancers.

• Stay active: 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week not only helps maintain a healthy weight but also reduces the risk of several types of cancer.

• Screenings and early detection: Routine screenings, such as colonoscopies for colorectal cancer and endoscopies for esophageal and stomach cancers, can detect precancerous conditions or early-stage cancers when treatment is most effective.

• Vaccinations: Vaccines against hepatitis B and human papillomavirus (HPV) can prevent infections that increase the risk of liver and certain types of oesophageal cancers, respectively. You can discuss with your doctor about vaccination options.

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