Gastrointestinal Cancer

Gastrointestinal Cancer Condition


Gastrointestinal cancer affects the organs in the digestive system, including the oesophagus, stomach, pancreas, gallbladder, liver, small and large intestine, anus and rectum. It is characterised by the uncontrolled growth of normal cells that make up the digestive tract.


The exact cause of gastrointestinal cancer is not clear. However, certain risk factors such as excessive alcohol intake, smoking, advanced age, diet rich in animal fat and salt, poorly preserved food and obesity may increase your risk of developing gastrointestinal cancer.



The gastrointestinal system is a long tube running right through the body, with specialised sections that are capable of digesting and extracting useful components of the diet and expelling waste products. Once food has been chewed and mixed with saliva in the mouth, it is swallowed and passes down the oesophagus into the stomach.

The stomach secretes acid and other digestive enzymes for digestion and stores food before it enters into the intestine. The liver is the main organ of metabolism and energy production.

It produces bile, which is stored in the gallbladder, and also stores iron, vitamins and trace elements. The pancreas, located behind the stomach, produces enzymes and hormones that aid in digestion and metabolism. Once food has been mulched and partially digested by the stomach, it is pushed into the duodenum (first part of the small intestine). Secretions of the gallbladder and pancreas empty into the small intestine, the site where most of the chemical and mechanical digestion and virtually all of the absorption of useful materials takes place. The large intestine is the last part of the digestive tube and the location of the terminal phases of digestion, where waste is processed and stored in the rectum before excretion.


Symptoms of gastrointestinal cancer may include abdominal pain, discomfort or tenderness, change in shape, frequency or consistency of bowels, blood in stool, bloating, vomiting, nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite and unintentional weight loss. Sometimes there are no symptoms.



Your doctor diagnoses gastrointestinal cancer by performing a thorough physical examination and reviewing your medical history. Certain tests may be ordered to assist and confirm the diagnosis, which includes:

  • Blood tests: The tests include full blood count and tumour marker tests.
  • Gastroscopy: Gastroscopy is a procedure in which a long, thin flexible tube with a tiny camera is passed through your mouth and down your throat to examine the lining of the oesophagus, stomach and duodenum.
  • Faecal test: Faecal samples are examined under the microscope for abnormalities and blood.
  • Biopsy: A small sample of tissue is removed and examined under the microscope for abnormal cells.
  • Colonoscopy: A colonoscope, a long narrow tube with a camera is inserted from the rectum to examine your colon.

These tests help identify the location and stage of cancer, which is important for designing the treatment plan.


Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer, location, your age and general health. Several treatment options are available for treating gastrointestinal cancers. The standard approaches include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and target therapy.

  • Surgical procedures vary depending upon the size and site of cancer. It generally involves resecting or removing the cancer
  • Radiation therapy is a procedure where high-energy rays are targeted at the cancer cells to destroy them.
  • Chemotherapy involves the use of anti-cancer drugs given intravenously (through the veins) or orally (by mouth). This type of treatment is extremely useful in cases where the cancer has spread to different parts of the body. These drugs work against the cells that divide quickly; thereby, slowing down the growth of cancer.
  • Target therapy stops new blood vessels from developing in the cancer cells. With no blood supply, the growths of cancer cells slow down.


The outcome of treatment varies from person to person. Treatment in some cases can make you free of cancer, while in others, it is given to slowdown the progression of the cancer and add to your days of living. The factors that can affect your prognosis include the location, stage and type of cancer, your age, health before cancer, and your response to treatment.


If left untreated, cancer usually spreads to other areas of the body, eventually leading to death.

  • Obesity Surgery Society of Australia & New Zeland
  • The International Society for Diseases of the Esophagus
  •  Australia &New Zeland Gastric & Oesophageal Surgery Association
  • Epworth Healthcare
  • Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Surgeons