Overview and Facts about Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors
Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST) is a disease that affects the body’s digestive health system, or gastrointestinal tract. GISTs are formed when abnormal cells lining the digestive tract begin to grow and multiply. The small tumors that result are rare and may be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). GISTs mostly occur in the stomach and small intestine.
The gastrointestinal tract absorbs food, turning it into nutrients, which provides the body with energy. Diseases that affect the body’s ability to digest food can eventually lead to other nutritional or metabolic disorders.
Signs and Symptoms of Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors
Most GISTs form inside the hollow spaces of the digestive tract, and a patient may not show any signs or symptoms until the tumor reaches a certain size. Small GISTs may be discovered only when a patient undergoes an unrelated evaluation.
Signs and symptoms of GIST may include:
- Blood in the stool or vomit
- Fatigue from anemia
- Severe abdominal pain
- A mass or swelling in the abdomen
- Pain or difficulty swallowing
- Feeling full after eating a small amount
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
Risks of Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors
What causes GISTs is largely unknown, but it may be attributed to a genetic syndrome. Certain genes cause cells to grow and divide, while others cause it to stop or slow down. Genetic factors certainly increase the risk of developing GISTs; however, most gene mutations associated with GISTs are not passed down, but change sporadically.
Tests and Diagnosis of Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors
To diagnose GIST, your doctor will discuss your symptoms and medical history. A physical examination will check for signs of the disease, such as unusual lumps in the abdomen. Imaging tests, including ultrasound, MRI and CT scans, are used to confirm a GIST diagnosis. The ultrasound is performed through an endoscopic procedure, in which a small tube will be threaded through your esophagus, stomach and small intestine. A sample of tissue, or biopsy, may be taken during this procedure to look for cancer cells.
If cancer is found, additional tests will stage the cancer and determine the rate of cancer cell division and growth. A patient’s chances of recovery depends on the location and size of the tumor, how fast it’s growing and whether it has spread (metastasized). If the cells have spread, more imaging tests will determine where in the body and to what extent the cancer has spread.
Treatment and Care for Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors
Treatment options for GIST depend on the specific tumor type, location, size and whether it has spread. The most common treatments include surgery, therapeutic drugs, monitoring and supportive care. A surgical approach is usually done through a laparoscope, a minimally invasive procedure in which instruments used to remove tissue are inserted through a tube in the abdominal wall. Drug therapy for GIST targets specific cancer cells and interferes with their ability to grow; this can also be useful to shrink any tumors so they can be laparoscopically removed.