How a common bacteria can lead to stomach cancer

January 06, 2021 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

Stomach cancer often gets its start from ulcers or a bacterial infection that takes root in the lining of the stomach.

According to the American Cancer Society, stomach cancer is on the decline, but remains one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths worldwide.

In 2020, the American Cancer Society estimated 27,600 new cases of stomach cancer would be diagnosed in the United States and that about 11,000 Americans would die due to stomach cancer.

Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori, is a common bacterial infection that can cause peptic ulcers as well as gastritis and stomach cancer.

About half of the world’s population is believed to have H. pylori infection, though many may never experience any symptoms of the infection or develop ulcers or stomach cancer.

The H. pylori bacteria can be passed from person to person through direct contact with saliva, vomit or fecal matter. It can also be passed through contaminated food or water.

Some risk factors for H. pylori include: living in crowded conditions, living with someone who has H. pylori infection, not having a reliable supply of clean water or living in a developing country.

About 30 to 40 percent of people in the U.S. get an H. pylori infection. Most people may not develop any symptoms from the infection, but symptoms can include:

  • Dull or burning pain in the abdomen
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Frequent burping
  • Bloating
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Abdominal pain that worsens when your stomach is empty

To determine if you have H. pylori, your doctor may order a blood test, breath test, stool test or conduct an endoscopy. If you have H. pylori infection, it may be treated with antibiotics.

While H. pylori does not always lead to stomach cancer, the bacteria weakens the protective coating in the stomach, making H. pylori one of the top risk factors for stomach cancer.

Ulcers and H. pylori aren’t the only causes or risk factors for stomach cancer. Other risk factors include:

  • Age. The average age for a diagnosis of stomach cancer is 68. Those over the age of 50 also are at greater risk for developing an H. pylori infection.
  • Obesity
  • A family history of stomach cancer
  • A diet high in salty and smoked foods and/or low in fruits and vegetables put you at higher risk.
  • Smoking
  • Stomach polyps or ulcers
  • Long-term or chronic stomach inflammation

Making healthy lifestyle choices — such as quitting smoking, adopting a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight — can help decrease your risk for stomach cancer.

Learn more about cancer care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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