Small Intestine Cancer

Small intestine cancer is a cancer that starts in the part of the digestive tract that connects your stomach to the large intestine (colon). After food leaves your stomach, most of the digestive process takes place here.

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To schedule an appointment, please call the UC Gastrointestinal Cancer team at 513-585-UCCC.


Understanding Small Intestine Cancer

Small intestine cancer has a 68.3% five-year survival rate. For patients who find symptoms of small intestine cancer early, this survival rate increases.

No one thinks about getting diagnosed with small intestine cancer, but you should be aware of some signs and symptoms, so you know when to go to the doctor. It's also helpful to review risk factors, causes and more information related to gastroenterological cancers.

What is Small Intestine Cancer?

Cancer is formed of changed cells that grow out of control. The changed, or abnormal, cells often grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. 

Cancer cells can also grow into nearby areas, and they can spread to other parts of the body, which is called metastasis.

Small intestine cancer is a cancer that starts in the 20 ft. long part of the digestive tract that connects your stomach to the large intestine (colon). After food leaves your stomach, most of the digestive process takes place here. It is made of 3 portions – duodenum, jejunum and  ileum.

Changes that occur in the cells that line the inside of the small intestine can lead to growths called polyps. Over time, some types of polyps can become cancerous. Removing these polyps early may stop cancer from ever forming.

How Does Cancer Affect the Important Role of the Small Intestine?

The small intestine is responsible for many processes in the body:

  • It digests and absorbs nutrients from the foods that you eat.

  • It produces hormones that aid in digestion.

  • It plays a role in your body's immune system.

Cancerous cells in the small intestine can interrupt these tasks. Over time, it could completely alter the way that your small intestine works.

Types of Small intestine Cancers

Just like with most cancers, small intestine cancer is a term that describes many different conditions. Each kind of small intestine cancer has its own considerations:

  • Adenocarcinoma.

  • Neuroendocrine tumors.

  • Lymphoma.

  • Sarcoma.

The specific small intestine cancer treatment that you get will depend on the kind and stage of your specific cancer. If you've been diagnosed with small intestine cancer, you should talk with your healthcare provider about what kind of treatment regimen you should follow.

What Causes Small Intestine Cancer?

Unfortunately, healthcare providers and scientists aren't completely sure what causes most small intestine cancers.

Overall, cancers start when cells in the body begin to change, or mutate, their DNA. DNA is the part of the cell that tells it what to do in the body, so mutations can cause big problems for body functioning.

Once a cell's DNA becomes damaged, it is cancerous and will continue to divide, even when the body doesn't need more cells. Over time, these cells form a mass called a tumor.

If the tumor is benign, it will likely stay in place, although it may grow in size. If it is malignant, the cells will begin to move and metastasize all over the body.

Small Intestine Cancer Symptoms

Most of the signs and symptoms of small intestine cancer involve changes in the gastrointestinal system. If you notice a persistence of any of these symptoms, you should let your healthcare provider know as soon as possible:

  • Abdominal pain.

  • Nausea.

  • Vomiting.

  • Watery diarrhea.

  • Bloody stool that may appear red or black in color.

  • Constant tiredness (fatigue).

  • Flushing of the skin.

  • Yellowing of the skin and/or the whites of the eyes (jaundice).

  • Losing weight without trying.

Most of these symptoms may coincide with those that you've had before with influenza and other similar viruses. The key is to notice how long you've been experiencing the symptoms. 

Symptoms from small intestine cancers can often appear late and can be non-specific. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to a diagnosis at later stages of the disease.

The persistence of any of these symptoms could indicate a chronic condition, whether it be cancer or something else.

Small Intestine Cancer Risk Factors (Who is at Risk?)

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known, but risk factors can make it more likely for a person to have cancer. Some risk factors may be out of your control,, but others may be things you can change.

Through small intestine cancer research, scientists have found some risk factors that may increase the likelihood that patients will develop small intestine cancer.

If you fall under any of these categories, you should let your healthcare provider know. Some of these risk factors may put you at a higher risk for developing other conditions as well.

Family History of Gastroenterological Cancers

First, you may be at a higher risk for developing small intestine cancer if it runs in your family. There are certain gene mutations that families pass down through generations.

If you know of someone in your family who has had any gastroenterological cancers, you should let your healthcare provider know. This will alert them to watch for signs and symptoms of these conditions, and it could lead to a quicker diagnosis in the future. With this, you should ask if anyone in your family has had one of the following conditions:

  • Lynch syndrome.

  • Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP).

  • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome.

Researchers have linked each of these conditions to small intestine cancer in family lineages. Again, you should let your healthcare provider know if any of these conditions run in your family.

Personal History of Other Intestine Diseases

If you have an intestine condition, you could be at a higher risk of developing small intestine cancer. Here are some of the most common intestine conditions linked to small intestine cancer:

  • Inflammatory intestine syndrome (IBS).

  • Celiac disease.

  • Crohn's disease.

If you have one of these or another intestine-related disease, you should alert your healthcare provider. Having a full medical history will help them get a more comprehensive look at signs and symptoms, and it will help them better care for those other chronic conditions.

Personal History of a Weakened Immune System

A weakened immune system can also put you at a higher risk of developing small intestine cancer.

Whether you have an autoimmune disease, HIV, or you're taking medication that weakens your immune system, you should let your healthcare provider know. You should be vigilant about looking for the signs and symptoms of small intestine cancer that we discussed earlier.

Other risk factors of small intestine cancer can include:

  • Age.

  • Obesity.

  • Not being active.

  • Smoking.

  • Heavy alcohol use.

How is Small Intestine Cancer Diagnosed?

If your healthcare provider thinks you may have small intestine cancer, you will need exams and tests to be sure. Your healthcare provider will ask you about your health history, your symptoms, risk factors and family history of disease. He or she will also give you a physical exam. 

Screenings for Small Intestine Cancer

For small intestine cancer, your provider may do the following tests:

  • Blood tests. A test that can determine low red blood cell counts, which could be a result of stomach bleeding.

  • Imaging tests. X-rays, CT scan or MRI.

  • Endoscopy. This procedure allows the physician to examine your organs with an endoscope – a long, flexible, lighted tube with a camera on the end. The scope is guided through the patient’s mouth and throat, then through the esophagus, stomach and duodenum. The physician can examine the inside of these organs and detect any abnormalities. 

  • Biopsy. A procedure in which a sample of stomach tissue is removed with a needle or during surgery for examination under a microscope.

How is Small Intestine Cancer Treated?

Your treatment choices depend on the type of small intestine cancer you have, test results and the stage of the cancer. The goal of treatment may be to cure you, control the cancer or help ease problems caused by the cancer. Talk with your healthcare team about your treatment choices, the goals of treatment and what the risks and side effects may be.

Types of treatment for cancer are either local or systemic. Local treatments remove, destroy or control cancer cells in one area. Surgery and radiation are local treatments. 

Systemic treatment is used to destroy or control cancer cells that may have traveled around your body. When taken by pill or injection, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment. You may have just one treatment or a combination of treatments.

Types of treatment for small intestine cancer include:

  • Surgery. The most common treatment for small intestine cancer, the goal of surgery is to remove the entire tumor and any cells that may have spread to nearby tissue.

  • Radiation therapy. The use of high-energy beams of X-rays or particles to kill cancer cells.

  • Chemotherapy. The use of anti-cancer drugs to shrink or destroy cancerous cells. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell’s ability to grow or reproduce. Different groups of drugs work in different ways to fight cancer cells. The oncologist will recommend a treatment plan for each individual. Chemotherapy may be given alone, or in combination with surgery and radiation therapy.

  • Immunotherapy. New cancer treatment options now include immunotherapy, which are drugs given through the vein to stimulate the body’s immune system and make it fight the cancer.

  • Targeted Therapy. Medicines that target specific parts of small intestine cancer cells to kill the cells or slow their growth. These medicines work differently from regular chemotherapy medicines. They’re used to treat certain types of small intestine cancer and advanced small intestine cancer that aren’t responding to other treatments.

  • Supportive care. To ease your symptoms—learn more here.

Researchers are always looking for new ways to treat cancer. These new methods are tested in clinical trials. Talk with your doctor to find out if there are any clinical trials you should consider.

Talk with your healthcare providers about your treatment options and make a list of questions. Think about the benefits and possible side effects of each option, and talk thoroughly about your concerns with your healthcare provider before making a decision.

How Can I Prevent Small intestine Cancer?

There are many ways you can try to prevent small intestine cancer. Even if you have a pre-existing condition or another risk factor, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of developing small intestine cancer.

Eat Healthier Foods

Eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help reduce your risk of cancer overall. Each of these kinds of foods contains vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants to protect your body.

A larger variety of fruits and vegetables can help you get more vitamins and nutrients to fuel your body and protect it from developing any further risks.

Cut Down on the Alcohol Consumption

If you drink alcohol, you should cut down on the amount of alcohol that you're drinking.

For women of all ages and men older than 65 years of age, you should not be drinking more than one drink per day. For men younger than 65 years of age, you shouldn't be drinking more than two drinks per day.

Stop Smoking

If you're a regular smoker, you should know that  smoking increases your risk for gastroenterological cancers, as well as many other kinds of cancers. 

If you're worried about how to quit, talk to your healthcare provider. There are plenty of options for smoking cessation.

Exercise Often

You should be exercising most days for about 30 minutes per day. 

If you're used to being inactive, you may need to work up to this 30-minute mark, but any additional activity can be extremely beneficial for your body.

Before starting any exercise programs, you should talk to your healthcare provider. There may be some special considerations to keep in mind.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Maintaining a healthy weight can do wonders for your body. It can prevent weight-related disorders, glucose problems and even cancer.

Combining a healthy diet with daily exercise can help you get to the ideal weight for your body.

If you are overweight or obese, you can still negate cancer risk by eating healthier foods and exercising regularly.

Living with Small Intestine Cancer

Many people feel worried, depressed and stressed when dealing with cancer. Getting treatment for cancer can be hard on your mind and body. Keep talking with your healthcare team about any problems or concerns you have. Work together to ease the effects of cancer and its symptoms on your daily life.

Here are some tips:

  • Talk with your family or friends.

  • Ask your healthcare team or social worker for help.

  • Speak with a counselor.

  • Talk with a spiritual advisor, such as a minister or rabbi.

  • Ask your healthcare team about medicines for depression or anxiety.

  • Keep socially active.

  • Join a cancer support group. The University of Cincinnati Cancer Center offers supportive services and programs for your cancer journey – explore them here

Cancer treatment is also hard on the body. To help yourself stay healthier, try to:

  • Eat a healthy diet, with as many protein foods as possible.

  • Drink plenty of water, fruit juices and other liquids.

  • Keep physically active.

  • Rest as much as needed.

  • Talk with your healthcare team about ways to manage treatment side effects.

  • Take your medicines as directed by your team.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Your healthcare provider will talk with you about when to call. You may be told to call if you have any of the below:

  • New symptoms or symptoms that get worse.

  • Signs of an infection, such as a fever.

  • Side effects of treatment that affect your daily function or don't get better with treatment.

Ask your healthcare provider what signs to watch for, and when to call. Know how to get help after office hours and on weekends and holidays.

Small intestine cancer care at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center 

The University of Cincinnati Cancer Center focuses on multidisciplinary care of cancer – meaning  various experts involved in the treatment of your cancer will work together, review your case at tumor boards, see you and communicate regularly about your condition, treatment plan and progress. These include oncologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists and gastroenterologists,  amongst others. Other specialists such as radiologists and pathologists provide important support to the treating physicians in diagnosing and monitoring the cancer.

Among our physicians are many others who make our cancer care possible – nurses, pharmacists, nutritionists, dietitians and social workers to name a few.

We offer minimally invasive and robotic surgeries, advanced endoscopic methods of removing very early tumors, proton radiation therapy and leading edge clinical trials of new cancer medications.

Advancing Cancer Care through Clinical Trials

The University of Cincinnati Cancer Center is always working to improve cancer treatments. This is done through clinical trials exploring new medications, methods of doing surgery or radiation and ways of minimizing side-effects from treatment.

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