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life with stomach cancer

In 2014, there were nearly 95,000 people living with stomach cancer in the United States.

That means there’s a community of others who may have shared this experience.

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Your Stomach Cancer Journey

Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, is the fifth most common cancer in the world. In 2012, nearly 1 million new cases were diagnosed worldwide. The journey of stomach cancer may be overwhelming, but you have available to you a community of family, friends, counselors, support groups, and your healthcare team to give you and your caregiver emotional and practical support during your treatment. This section contains information to help you both understand what to expect in the journey ahead.

Diagnosis: What’s going on?

Stomach cancer starts in the lining of the stomach and usually develops slowly over many years. It can occur in different sections of the stomach and may cause different symptoms.

About your stomach

Your stomach is a hollow organ that has an important role in the digestion of food. After food moves from your mouth into the esophagus (the tube that runs from the back of your throat to your stomach), it then passes into your stomach where it is broken down by digestive juices. From there, it moves into the small intestine.

A patient speaks to a nurse.

Symptoms of stomach cancer

Early stage stomach cancer may not cause symptoms, but as the cancer grows, some of the most common issues include:

  • Stomach pain or discomfort
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Feeling full or bloated after a small meal
  • Having blood in your stool (may appear black and tarry and have a foul smell)
  • Vomiting blood

These symptoms also may be caused by other medical conditions, so the doctor will need to perform tests to confirm a stomach cancer diagnosis. Please talk to your doctor about any symptoms you may be having.

How stomach cancer is diagnosed

Several tests and procedures are used to diagnose stomach cancer and may include:

Physical exam and medical history

A general examination is performed to check for signs of disease and to record overall health.

Laboratory tests

Blood work and other tests may be ordered by the doctor.


This is the most common test used to diagnose stomach cancer. An endoscope (a long, thin, flexible tube containing a light and a camera) is inserted down the throat and into the stomach to look for signs of cancer.


This involves the removal of a tissue sample from any suspicious-looking part of the stomach. This tissue is then examined under a microscope in a lab.

Imaging tests

These tests are used to create pictures of the inside of the body. Examples of these tests include a computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or positron emission tomography (PET) scan. Each test has a specific medical use, so the doctor will determine which test to perform. If you have any questions about why a certain test was ordered, your doctor or healthcare team can explain.

How stomach cancer is staged

After stomach cancer is diagnosed, the next step is to determine the stage, or extent, of the disease. There are five stages ranging from 0 to IV (4). The higher the stage, the more advanced the cancer. The stage number is used to help determine how your stomach cancer should be treated. Tumor staging is determined using the TNM classification.

  • T describes the size of the original tumor. A T1 tumor is smaller, while a T3 tumor is larger
  • N tells whether the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes. N0 means there is no cancer in your lymph nodes. N1, N2, and N3 mean it has spread to your lymph nodes. The higher the number, the farther away the cancer has spread from its original site
  • M tells whether the cancer has spread (metastasized) to other parts of your body. M0 means it hasn’t spread far from its original site, while M1 means the cancer has spread to more distant locations

Part of the classification is based on how far the cancer has spread through the stomach wall. The stomach wall has five layers:

  • Mucosa: Innermost layer (contains three parts: epithelial cells, tissue called lamina propria, and a thin muscle layer called muscularis mucosa)
  • Submucosa: Support tissue for the inner layer
  • Muscularis propria: Thick layer of muscle
  • Subserosa: Support tissue for the outer layer
  • Serosa: Outer layer that covers the stomach

As the cancer grows deeper into the stomach layers, the staging advances.

Distress: This can’t be happening.

A stomach cancer diagnosis can be frightening. It brings on a wide range of emotional reactions that differ from person to person. People on this journey may experience anger, depression, anxiety, and fear as they face the “what ifs.” As treatment begins and you move through your journey, these emotions may come and go, so it’s important to know that you are not alone. You have your healthcare team, support groups, and loved ones on the journey with you. Let them help in whatever way they can.

Stomach cancer also can be a significant physical challenge because it alters a very fundamental aspect of life—eating. So you may have additional moments of stress as you adapt to following a new diet, dealing with the side effects of very complex surgery, and even facing self-image issues that may arise from weight loss or surgical scars.

If you or someone you love is faced with a stomach cancer diagnosis and the challenges it may bring, please talk with your healthcare team. They may know of resources in your area that can help. You and those who surround you also may find comfort and support for your journey through this organization dedicated solely to stomach cancer:

Debbie’s Dream Foundation®
Visit now

All third-party names, brands, and other trademarks are the property of their respective trademark owners. Those trademark owners are not affiliated with Lilly and they do not sponsor or endorse this material.

Plan: What’s next?

With any type of cancer diagnosis, there is likely a need to adapt and plan for many areas in life—from organizing financial and legal affairs to rearranging your daily schedule around treatments. With stomach cancer there are considerations and decisions to be made with your care team and loved ones. Playing an active role in your health and treatment may help you feel more in control and confident in the decisions you are making together. Due to the nature of treatment and possible surgical side effects, maintaining proper nutrition is a very important planning consideration when living with stomach cancer or caring for someone who is.

Why a healthy diet is important

When stomach cancer is diagnosed, good nutrition becomes essential, especially taking in enough calories to maintain a healthy weight. However, that can be difficult if you’re too tired to eat or just not interested in food. You may be experiencing side effects from treatment, like nausea or mouth sores, that also may cause you to lose your appetite.

Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist to understand how diet might be important to you.

Treat: It’s time to act.

Treatment recommendations for stomach cancer can be unique for each person based on the stage of the disease, its location, and information learned during discussions with your doctor. Some options may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, biologic therapy, or a combination of these options.

New normal: Life’s different.

From the moment stomach cancer is diagnosed, you become a survivor—whether you’re the one fighting the disease or the one fighting for the person who is. Each day can bring new challenges as you work with your healthcare team and loved ones to make difficult treatment decisions and learn how to live with the changes they bring.

If you go through surgery: You may have to learn to eat smaller meals, manage potential side effects like heartburn, nausea, and abdominal pain, and take supplements to ensure you are getting the vitamins your body needs, including the possibility of having to take vitamin B12 injections. Chemotherapy and radiation also may cause side effects that can make it even more difficult to maintain proper nutrition. Your healthcare team can have you meet with a dietician who can recommend foods and give you tips that may help you feel better. So don’t hesitate to talk about any problems you experience.

During and after treatment: It can be a relief to finish treatment, but then you may worry about the cancer coming back. It may help you to know that others have lived with the same fears. For some people, their cancer may never go away completely, so they may receive ongoing treatment to help keep it under control for as long as possible. This can be a very stressful situation for anyone with stomach cancer and their loved ones. Throughout your stomach cancer journey, it’s important to seek out emotional and social support through friends, family, church or spiritual groups, private counselors, and cancer support groups. Staying hopeful and positive is important, too.

Share your story and get involved: Sharing experiences can help raise awareness of stomach cancer and may empower others to do the same. If you choose to share your story or join a support community, you may consider: