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Cancer Health Center

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Cancer of the Small Intestine

The small intestine, or small bowel, lies between the stomach and the colon. The small intestine is about 20 feet long. Its primary function is to digest and absorb nutrients. The small intestine makes up more than 70% of the length and 90% of the surface area of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Cancerous (malignant) tumors of the small intestine include adenocarcinoma, carcinoid, gastrointestinal stromal tumor, lymphoma, and cancer that has spread from other places in the body. All these tumors have the potential to invade the bowel wall, move into adjoining lymph nodes, and spread to distant organs (metastasize).

  • Almost a third of all small bowel cancers in the U.S. are adenocarcinomas.
  • In the U.S., adenocarcinomas of the small bowel are more common in people of color.



Risk Factors for Small Bowel Cancer


Each year, U.S. doctors diagnose over 9,000 malignant small intestine tumors. While the number of cases of small bowel cancer is on the rise, this is a small number relative to the frequency of tumors in other parts of the GI tract. Reasons given include:

  • The liquid nature of the contents of the small intestine may be less irritating to the mucosa, the innermost lining of the small bowel.
  • The smaller amount of time it takes for food to move through the small bowel may reduce exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.

Other factors that might limit the impact of potential cancer-causing substances include the following:

  • A low bacteria count in the GI tract
  • A large lymphoid tissue component in the wall of the small intestine
  • An alkaline pH inside the small intestine
  • The presence of the enzyme benzpyrene hydroxylase


Adenocarcinoma of the small bowel is associated with the following underlying conditions:

  • Crohn's disease -- An inflammation in the small intestine. Crohn's disease usually occurs in the lower part of the small intestine, called the ileum. The inflammation extends deep into the lining of the affected organ, causing pain and making the intestines empty frequently, resulting in diarrhea.
  • Celiac disease -- Gluten intolerance
  • Familial polyposis syndromes -- An inherited disease in which the large bowel becomes carpeted by polyps of various dimensions during the second or third decade of life. If untreated, the disease invariably leads to cancer of the colon or rectum. Celecoxib (Celebrex) has been FDA approved for this disorder.
  • Peutz-Jeghers syndrome -- a syndrome characterized by increased skin pigmentation around the nose, lips, gums, hands, and feet, which is also associated with polyps. The risk of colorectal cancer and cancer of the small bowel is increased in people with this syndrome. So is the risk of developing cancer of the breast and gallbladder.

Lymphoma of the small intestine is associated with celiac disease and weakened immune systems, such as occurs with AIDS.

Cancer is about 15 times more likely to be found in the large bowel than in the small bowel. Risk factors in the general population include the following:



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