Navigating Options for Breakthrough Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment

Gastrointestinal (GI) cancers are among the most common types of cancer. These cancers can occur anywhere along your digestive (gastrointestinal) tract.

GI cancers include those that form in the following areas of the body:

When you or someone you love has GI cancer, you may have many questions. You may wonder: Are gastrointestinal cancers curable? Fortunately, new advances in gastrointestinal cancer treatment, including stomach cancer treatment, offer options and hope.

Advances in Treating GI Cancer

Cancer researchers are always searching for new treatment options to improve survival rates and quality of life for people with GI cancers. Today, experts use personalized (precision) medicine to treat many GI cancers.

Experts may test your blood, urine, or tumor samples for certain proteins and genes (known as molecular markers). They use these tests to learn about your unique genetic makeup and the specific genes present in tumors. Cancer specialists use this information to create your personalized gastrointestinal cancer treatment plan.

Personalized medicine for GI cancers may include treatment with:

  • Immunotherapy. Drugs that help your immune system identify and fight cancer. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are a type of immunotherapy. These drugs turn off certain inhibitory proteins, releasing the immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy. Drugs that “target” certain genes and proteins that cancer cells use to grow. Anti-HER2 therapy is a type of targeted therapy. These drugs target the protein when it’s detected in the tumor.

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Why Having an Expert Team for GI Cancer Treatment Matters

Creating a customized GI cancer treatment plan takes many experts. These team members’ combined knowledge and skills ensure you get the best care.

Your GI cancer care team may include the following:

  • Gastroenterologists. Doctors who specialize in the digestive system.
  • Oncologists. Experts who treat cancer with therapies such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and other targeted therapeutics.
  • Palliative care physicians. Experts who design pain management strategies and administer pain medication during cancer treatment.
  • Radiation oncologists. Experts who use radiation to treat cancer.
  • Registered dietitians. Nutrition experts who help manage your foods and liquids before, during, and after cancer treatment.
  • Surgeons. Experts who operate to remove cancerous tissue and tumors.

New Surgeries to Treat Gastrointestinal Cancers

Today, experts often use less invasive surgeries to treat GI cancers.

These surgeries can help you:

  • Have fewer complications.
  • Heal faster.
  • Leave the hospital sooner.

Cancer’s location in your digestive system will determine if surgery is right for you — and which surgery you may have. For example, stomach cancer treatment may include removing all or part of your stomach (this is a gastrectomy).

Depending on the GI cancer type, you may have:

Endoscopic surgery

Experts insert a thin tube with a light and camera (endoscope) down your throat. They pass small surgical instruments through the endoscope to remove tumors. Your surgeon may perform endoscopic surgery to treat certain esophageal and stomach cancers.

Laparoscopic surgery

Surgeons make small cuts (incisions) in your skin. They insert a thin tube with a light and camera (laparoscope) to see the area. They insert surgical instruments through the laparoscope to remove cancerous tissue.

Surgeons may use laparoscopic surgeries to diagnose and treat some GI cancers. They may also use laparoscopy to plan traditional (open) surgeries when minimally invasive tumor removal isn’t possible.

Robotic-assisted surgical techniques

Your surgeon sits at a console that controls robotic arms positioned at the operating table. The arms have attached surgical instruments that surgeons use to remove tumors. Surgeons use robotic-assisted techniques to operate with extra control, which helps protect healthy tissue.

Experts may use robot-assisted surgeries to treat certain types of:

  • Colorectal cancer.
  • Pancreatic cancer.
  • Small intestine cancer.
  • Stomach cancer.

Advances in Recovery After GI Cancer Surgery

GI cancer surgery can take a toll on your body. Your care team may use Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS) protocols to help improve your recovery.

ERAS protocols are a set of steps that help:

  • Prepare your body for surgery. Specialists manage your nutrition and fluid levels before and during surgery. Keeping fluids at the right levels can help manage inflammation and speed your recovery.
  • Prevent surgical pain. Experts use pain management techniques and medicines before, during, and after surgery. Pain management helps your body experience less stress during the operation and promotes faster healing.
  • Reduce your risk of complications. Specialists in anesthesia, nursing, pharmacy, and surgery work together before, during, and after GI cancer surgery. They follow ERAS protocols at every step to help you avoid complications and recover sooner.

Talk to your surgeon about how ERAS protocols can help ease your recovery after GI cancer surgery.

New Medicines for GI Cancer Treatment

Certain drugs have shown promise in treating GI cancers, including FDA-approved immunotherapies for gastrointestinal cancer treatment.

Immunotherapies that can treat gastrointestinal cancers include immune checkpoint inhibitors. They also include manufactured proteins that help your immune system destroy cancer cells. Researchers continue to study immunotherapies for broader indications to treat all types of GI cancer.

Other emerging therapies for GI cancer include precision radiation therapy. Radiotherapy (radiation treatment) kills cancer cells by damaging their DNA and has been used to treat cancer for more than 100 years. Radiation oncologists use imaging technology to deliver a highly targeted, personalized dose of radiation that destroys cancer while protecting healthy tissue. Radiation therapy may be used on its own or in combination with chemotherapy and/or surgery as part of your treatment plan.

Today, radiation oncologists may use:

Advancements in radiotherapy treatment delivery such as IMRT and stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) allow the precise targeting of high-energy radiation beams to tumors in the gastrointestinal tract, pancreas, and liver while sparing normal organs nearby.

Cancer researchers constantly test new therapies and new ways of delivering treatment. Research studies known as clinical trials can help improve health outcomes and your quality of life when you have GI cancer. A clinical trial may explore a single therapy or combine treatments, such as radiation therapy with immunotherapy.

How to Navigate New Treatment Options and Find Support

Learning that you have GI cancer can feel challenging. Ask your team to explain your diagnosis, including the size and location of the cancer (its stage). Talk to your doctor about your health goals and the treatment options that can help you meet your goals.

Your care team can inform you about the newest options for treating GI cancers. You may qualify to enter clinical trials for them. Ask your doctor if a clinical trial is right for you.

Caring for your mental health when you have GI cancer is also important. Your care team’s social worker can give you information about resources that can help you manage living with cancer. Your social worker can also recommend support groups where you can connect with others who are living with GI cancer.

American Cancer Society. How Immunotherapy Is Used to Treat Cancer. Link

American Cancer Society. Immunotherapy for Stomach Cancer. Link

American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). What Is Targeted Therapy? Link

Cancers (Basel). Unveiling New Horizons: Progress in the Management of Gastrointestinal and Hepatobiliary Cancer. Link

Cancer Research Institute. Immunotherapy for Stomach Cancer. Link

ERAS® Society. Patient Information. Link

MedlinePlus. Imaging and radiology. Link

National Cancer Institute. Stomach Cancer Treatment. Link

National Cancer Institute. What Is Stomach Cancer? Link

World Journal of Gastroenterology. Recent advances in gastrointestinal cancers. Link

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.