Get Your Questions Answered About Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors

Cancer is arguably the greatest total health concern that the world faces today. The inability to “cure” cancer still causes frustration to researchers, and while advances are being made, being diagnosed with cancer is one of the worst moments a person can experience. Cancer starts when cells mutate and grow out of control with how they should. Usually this occurs in organs. A Gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) is not one of those forms of cancer. These are what’s known as a soft tissue tumor. They start in the other tissues that are busy supporting and surrounding the structures of the body. Soft tissue cancers are common in muscle, nerves, tendons, fat and blood vessels. GISTs start in the nerve cells of various parts of the digestive system. 

The 5 Important Questions

Q: Which Areas Can a GIST Occur In? 

A: As mentioned, a GIST can start in the nerve cells of the digestive system. Most of the time this means that they start in the stomach. The second most common area for a GIST to form is off of the small intestine. However, it’s possible that a GIST can form in any area of the digestive tract. Like most cancer, it’s possible for GIST to end up spreading to other areas of the body as well. 

Q: Are There Signs and Symptoms? 

A: In many cases, smaller GISTs don’t actually show any symptoms. It’s possible that people may be living with them and only discover them through other tests or examinations being done on the body. More serious cases can show symptoms. Some of those symptoms include pain in the abdomen, anemia (caused due to a bleeding tumor), a growth in the abdomen area, vomiting, nausea, loss of appetite, weight loss and trouble swallowing. The most serious symptoms are blood showing up in a person’s vomit or stool. These are dangerous signs and should result in a visit to a medical professional. 

Q: Can a Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor Spread to Other Areas of the Body? 

A: Like most cancers, it’s possible for a GIST to end up spreading cancerous cells to other parts of the body. It’s very possible for this form of cancer to affect multiple areas of the body. The process of cancer spreading to other body parts is metastasis. A metastatic GIST will start in the nerves of the digestive tract, then spread elsewhere, often to the lymphatic system.  

Q: What Causes a Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor? 

A: Unlike many forms of cancer, there’s not much of a link between other family members having a tumor and their children or siblings having one as well. GISTs are caused by abnormalities in genes. Most cases are caused by a mutation in the KIT gene (around 80%). The next most common is the PDGFRA gene. Mutations in this gene account for about 10% of cases. 

Q: How Is Treatment Performed? 

A: Small GISTs that aren’t showing symptoms may not require immediate treatment beyond watching and waiting to see what happens. Surgery to remove any tissue that’s been affected is common. The downside is that sometimes GIST affects too many types of tissue in an area or has spread further in the body. In these cases, surgery isn’t possible. Targeted drug therapy is another treatment option. This attempts to remove cancer cells by stopping one of the enzymes that allows cancerous cells to grow. 

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