Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, is a rare disease that newly affects over 26,000 patients each year. Often caught in its later stages, it is considered a life-threatening illness. However, experts say one risk factor—a common underlying condition that many of us have—could significantly increase the odds of developing ulcers and gastric cancer. By treating it, you may be able to slash your risk.
Read on to learn the number one risk factor for stomach cancer, and why half the global population may be at increased risk.
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Stomach cancer typically begins in the lining of the stomach, “when a cell in the stomach develops changes in its DNA,” explains the Mayo Clinic. “A cell’s DNA contains the instructions that tell the cell what to do. The changes tell the cell to grow quickly and to continue living when healthy cells would die. The accumulating cells form a tumor that can invade and destroy healthy tissue. With time, cells can break off and spread (metastasize) to other areas of the body,” their experts say.
Factors which may increase your risk of stomach cancer include obesity, gastroesophageal reflux disease, gastritis, and a family history of stomach cancer. Additionally, certain lifestyle choices can also play a role. These include smoking, as well as eating a diet that is high in salty or smoked foods or low in fruits and vegetables.
Though any one of the above factors could increase your risk of stomach cancer, one factor is considered the single largest contributing factor. Being infected with the bacteria Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) “is the strongest known risk factor for gastric cancer, which is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide.” explains a 2010 study in the journal Clinical Microbiology Reviews (CMS).
Having an H. pylori infection doesn’t mean you will necessarily develop stomach cancer or any other illness. In fact, “approximately 50 percent of the world’s population” has been colonized by this gastric bacteria, the study says, and only a small percentage go on to develop stomach cancer.
However, if left untreated, the body’s immune system is unable to fight this particular infection off by itself. “Once H. pylori colonizes the gastric environment, it persists for the lifetime of the host, suggesting that the host immune response is ineffective in clearing this bacterium,” the study authors write.
In those who do develop cancer resulting from an H. pylori infection, experts say inflammation is often to blame. “The whole process of stomach cancer risk associated with H. pylori is one of inflammation,” writes Patrick Lynch, MD, a gastroenterologist in Internal Medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “With H. pylori, you have an infection, which causes inflammation, then healing, then more inflammation. Over time, this cycle of constant cell regeneration can result in mistakes that lead to cancer.”
“The majority of colonized individuals develop coexisting chronic inflammation,” the CMS study corroborates, noting that “long-term carriage of H. pylori significantly increases the risk of developing site-specific diseases.”
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Several things can help prevent an H. pylori infection, including washing your hands regularly (especially when preparing food), maintaining proper nutrition to prevent iron deficiency anemia, and eating more cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage, say experts from the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health.
If you experience chronic gastrointestinal problems including indigestion, stomach pain, bloating, or the persistent urge to burp, ask your doctor about screening for H. pylori. If you are diagnosed, your doctor will discuss possible courses of treatment, which may consist of antibiotics, acid blockers, and histamine blockers.