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Cancer Health Center

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Cancer of the Small Intestine

Symptoms of Small Bowel Cancer

Like most GI cancers, early symptoms of small intestine cancer tend to be vague and nonspecific. They may include abdominal discomfort associated with the following:

The following symptoms may indicate advanced disease and should be signs to seek medical attention:

  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Visible blood loss: Blood or a material that looks like coffee grounds may be vomited, or black stools may be passed.
  • Severe nausea and vomiting, due to a blockage in the small bowel by the enlarging cancer; small intestine cancer is often diagnosed during surgery for an unexplained bowel obstruction.
  • Jaundice (yellowish skin): This is a symptom caused by blockage of the bile ducts draining the liver. For example, stools may lighten in color, urine may darken, and the whites of the eyes appear yellow.


Diagnosing Cancer of the Small Intestine

In almost all cases, doctors first choose to perform a barium contrast study of the small intestine. This is also called a small bowel series. Other tests may include:

  • Upper GI tract endoscopy to detect areas of concern in the immediate upper GI tract
  • CT scan of the abdomen or an abdominal ultrasound to visualize bulky tumors and to evaluate possible spread of the cancer to adjacent lymph nodes and distant organs, such as the liver
  • Colonoscopy to help diagnose tumors involving the lower areas of the small bowel
  •  Wireless video capsule endoscopy (VCE) is often used to diagnose problems in the small bowel. It involves swallowing a tiny video camera, the size of a large pill.



Treatment for Cancer of the Small Intestine

Surgical removal is the primary treatment for cancer of the small intestine. Other treatments may include:

  • Chemotherapy, if the cancer has spread or is contained but advanced
  • Radiation therapy, if the disease is localized at the place it originated
  • Surgery may also relieve symptoms when the cancer has caused a bowel obstruction. In this case, doctors may perform a bypass procedure or limited tumor removal.


Prognosis for Small Bowel Cancer

Survival rates for people with cancer of the small bowel depend on many factors, such as the type of cancer and its stage when it was found.

  • When adenocarcinoma of the small bowel is found in stage 1, the 5-year survival is about 55%.
  • The survival chances are better if the cancer is limited to the inner walls of the small intestine and the lymph nodes are not involved.
  • The chance of recovery is better still in people who have a carcinoid tumor or lymphoma of the small bowel. These malignancies tend to respond better to chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment when doctors cannot completely remove the tumor.
  • The prognosis is poor, however, if a person has a small bowel lymphoma with underlying celiac disease or if the person's immune system is weakened.


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