What is stomach cancer?

The stomach is in the upper left-hand side of the tummy area (abdomen). It is a stretchy, muscular bag, which stores food and helps to break it down (digestion).

Cancer can develop in the stomach. This is called stomach cancer or sometimes gastric cancer. Stomach cancer may spread to other parts of the body and can spread to lymph nodes close to the stomach.

The risk of developing stomach cancer increases as we get older. Over half of people who develop it are 75 or older. It is more common in men than in women.

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Types of stomach cancer

This information is about adenocarcinoma. This is the most common type of stomach cancer. It starts in the glandular cells of the stomach lining.

We have more information on other types of stomach cancer.
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Symptoms of stomach cancer

Early symptoms of stomach cancer can be like symptoms of common stomach conditions.

Common symptoms can include:

  • heartburn that does not go away
  • weight loss
  • loss of appetite.

It is important to get any symptoms checked by your GP.

We have more information about signs and symptoms of stomach cancer.

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Causes of stomach cancer

Doctors do not know exactly what causes stomach cancer. There are certain things that can increase the chance of developing stomach cancer. These are called risk factors.

Some of the risk factors linked to stomach cancer include:

  • gender
  • age
  • smoking
  • diet.

We have more information about the causes and risk factors of stomach cancer.

Diagnosis of stomach cancer

If you have symptoms, you usually begin by seeing your GP. If they think think that your symptoms could be caused by cancer, they will refer you to the hospital for tests. 

Tests for stomach cancer

The main test used to diagnose stomach cancer is an endoscopy. This is a test that looks at the lining of your oesophagus, stomach and duodenum (the first part of your small bowel).

We have more detailed information about how stomach cancer is diagnosed. This includes information about what happens when you see your GP, tests you may have if you cannot have an endoscopy and more information about further tests.

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time, we have more information that can help.

Staging and grading of stomach cancer

The results of your tests help your doctors find out more about the position of the cancer and whether it has spread. This is called staging.

A doctor decides the grade of the cancer by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. This gives an idea of how quickly the cancer might grow or spread.

We have more information about staging and grading of stomach cancer.

Treatment for stomach cancer

A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment options for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about things to consider when making treatment decisions.

Your treatment for stomach cancer depends on:

  • the stage of the cancer
  • your general health
  • your personal choices.

The main treatments for stomach cancer are:

  • Surgery

    Surgery can be used to remove the cancer or relieve the symptoms of stomach cancer that has spread.

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. It can be given on its own or in combination with other treatments.

Other treatments may include:

  • Radiotherapy

    Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to treat cancer. It destroys cancer cells in the area where the radiotherapy is given. It can be given with chemotherapy after surgery to reduce the risk of cancer coming back or to help symptoms, such as bleeding from the stomach.

  • Targeted therapy

    Sometimes a targeted therapy drug called trastuzumab is given with chemotherapy to treat advanced stomach cancer. Targeted therapy drugs target something in or around the cancer cell that is helping it grow and survive.

  • Immunotherapy

    Currently immunotherapy is not commonly used to treat stomach cancer. Nivolumab or pembrolizumab are sometimes used. You may be offered immunotherapy as part of a clinical trial.

The treatments can be used alone or in combination with each other. You may also have treatments as part of a clinical trial.

We have more information about treatment for stomach cancer.

After stomach cancer treatment

After your treatment has finished, you will have regular follow-up appointments. You will usually talk with someone from your healthcare team at the appointment. This may be your surgeon, cancer doctor, specialist nurse or another health professional.

If you have any problems or new symptoms between appointments, tell your cancer doctor or specialist nurse as soon as possible.

You may get anxious between appointments. This is natural. It may help to get support from family, friends or a support organisation.

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:

Eating after treatment for stomach cancer

It can take a few months to recover from treatment for stomach cancer. And it may take up to a year to adjust to the changes in your digestive system.

Changes in your diet

You will usually have a soft diet while you are still in hospital and normally be advised to keep to this diet for a few weeks. It will help to eat small amounts more often.

Gradually, you will be able to start eating solid foods again. It will help if there are no large lumps of food. Try to chew everything well. You may worry about eating solid foods at first. This should get easier as you become more used to having a normal diet again.

Your dietitian will talk to you about your diet and give you advice to help you recover from treatment. If you have any questions or worries about eating or weight loss after you have gone home, contact the dietitian or your specialist nurse for advice.

Well-being and recovery

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.

Making small changes such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and wellbeing and help your body recover.

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Date reviewed

Reviewed: 30 September 2019
Next review: 30 September 2022

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

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