Are You at Risk for Gastric Cancer?

As we age, our cancer risk factors change. But age isn’t the only factor that determines your risk for gastric cancer. Age, sex, diet and family history can impact your risk.

While it is true that men are at slightly higher risk than women to develop some form of gastrointestinal cancer, it is still important that women understand their risk factors for gastrointestinal cancers and undergo appropriate screening.

“Women did not used to get tested the way men do, but we are definitely seeing that change,” said Sonia Taneja Sharma, MD, a gastroenterologist at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital. Sharma noted that one in 25 women will be diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer in her life, making it the third most common cancer among women.

According to Sharma, people at average risk for colon cancer should begin screening at age 45. She noted that until recently doctors recommended their patients begin screening at 50 but that was dropped due to an increase in the number of people under 50 developing colon cancer.

Some patients, including those with a family history of colon cancer, certain genetic mutations or other gastrointestinal diseases, may need to begin screening at a younger age or have screenings more frequently.

Though several types of screening tests are available, Sharma encourages her patients to undergo colonoscopy.

“Colonoscopy is still the gold standard,” said Sharma. Colonoscopy allows doctors to see and remove growths called polyps that can become cancerous. “If there are no polyps – and as long as there are no other risk factors – we do another one in 10 years.”

For some types of gastrointestinal cancer, including stomach cancer, risk factors can include a person’s nationality.

Men and women from East Asia, noted Sharma, have high rates of stomach cancer. And, while there are no universal guidelines for screening American women for stomach cancer, in Korea and Japan women undergo routine endoscopic screening for stomach cancer beginning at 40 and 50, respectively.

“We know that people from East Asia have high rates of stomach cancer,” said Sharma. “Some patients from East Asia, especially if they have symptoms or other risk factors, should discuss with their doctor whether they need to be screened.”

Asians and Pacific Islanders are also more likely to have hepatitis B, which can lead to serious liver damage and liver cancer. Anyone born in those countries or who have at least one parent born in regions with high rates of hepatitis B should talk to their physician about getting screened.

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