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Written By: Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RDN, Last modified: February 26, 2021

Gastrointestinal cancer is the accepted term for a group of cancers that are contained within the digestive system or intestinal tract.

This includes pancreatic cancer, liver, gallbladder, colon, rectal and stomach cancer, in addition to gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST). Collectively, these cancers account for more than 286,480 new cases each year and over 147,090 deaths each year, according to data gathered in 2019.

As known risk factors for gastrointestinal cancer currently include smoking, alcohol consumption and obesity, asbestos exposure may eventually warrant the same classification. Exploring this relationship may provide researchers a better opportunity to find more effective treatment options.

Connection Between Asbestos and Gastrointestinal Cancer

Asbestos exposure has definitively been linked to asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. Could gastrointestinal cancers eventually be considered among them? The simple answer: possibly. In a study published in 2005, a clear association was demonstrated. A group of 726 lighthouse keepers in Norway were studied for cancer risk between 1917 and 1967 and were assessed again between 1960 and 2002.

Among a subgroup of lighthouse keepers — a segment who ingested asbestos-tainted drinking water — the risk of some gastrointestinal cancers, specifically stomach cancer, was statistically elevated. Results from this study aligned with findings from similar reports.

Exposed Workers

In a report published in 1985, in which researchers analyzed more than 45 studies of mortality data among asbestos-exposed workers, commonalities were found which included gastrointestinal cancers. Results from these studies showed a statistically significant elevation of esophageal, stomach and gastrointestinal tract cancers in workers who were exposed to asbestos.

However, it should be noted that some researchers remain critical of the proposed association between asbestos exposure and gastrointestinal cancers. They state that multiple studies that support the association come from one group of investigators, suggesting that more independent research is necessary.

Lack of Consensus

Critics further argue that previous republishing of a handful of reports may create the illusion of stronger associations between asbestos and gastrointestinal cancer than what really exists. Despite a lack of consensus on the data, researchers from both sides agree that cancer patients need to take immediate action upon diagnosis.

Symptoms

Symptoms of gastrointestinal cancers include feeling bloated after eating, indigestion, heartburn, nausea and stomach pain.

According to the National Cancer Institute, some cases of gastrointestinal cancers present no symptoms in early stages. This characteristic, similar to asbestos-connected diseases like mesothelioma and asbestosis, can delay a patient from visiting the doctor, effectively decreasing the likelihood of an early diagnosis.

Treatment Options

For many cancers, including mesothelioma, late-stage diagnoses yield limited treatment options, negatively affecting the patient’s prognosis. Gastrointestinal cancer treatments differ based on the location of the cancer, the size of the tumor and the condition of the patient, along with varying other factors.


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