December 31, 2021
People generally don’t think about their digestive system—until it stops working properly. Then its impacts on daily life quickly become evident.
Any type of digestive malfunction can be distressing, so I understand why patients are often concerned after a gastrointestinal (GI) cancer diagnosis. However, misinformation about what caused their cancer and what treatment will be like can add unnecessary stress to the emotional burden they already carry.
GI cancer includes several types of cancer that develop in organs throughout the digestive system, such as the:
These cancers comprise 26% of cancer cases worldwide and 35% of all cancer-related deaths. Symptoms for each type of GI cancer vary but typically include indigestion, weight loss, abdominal pain, nausea, and changes in bowel movements.
Treatment usually requires surgery and sometimes chemotherapy or radiation. Though the experience is not easy or comfortable, advanced treatment gives many patients longer, healthier, and higher-quality lives.
Knowing the truth about GI cancer diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship can help families spend less time worrying and focus more energy on healing. Here are five common myths—debunked—about GI cancer.
Myths about #GastrointestinalCancer can add unnecessary stress to a patient’s cancer diagnosis. In this blog, Anteneh Tesfaye, MD, debunks 5 common myths so patients can focus on facts—and feeling better: https://bit.ly/3Jv4FVC.Click to Tweet
1. Myth: Certain foods can cause GI cancer.
The truth: The common saying that “you are what you eat” is well-intentioned, but it has led many to believe that a patient’s diet can directly cause cancer; however, no direct cause-and-effect relationship has been discovered.
While the Western diet, which contains large amounts of processed products and foods with high levels of sugar, salt, and fat, has been linked to higher rates of colorectal cancer, a direct connection is still unknown. Plant-based diets such as veganism or the Mediterranean diet are often recommended instead. But GI cancer develops in people who eat these diets as well.
It has been shown that certain foods can help decrease the risk of getting cancer, and MedStar Health oncologists and nutritionists frequently collaborate to help patients looking for guidance on changing their diet before or after a cancer diagnosis.
If you’ve heard that sugar (glucose) “feeds” cancer cells, that’s also not true. All cells get their energy from glucose, whether they’re cancerous or not. If you cut glucose from your diet, your body will make it naturally to fuel your cells. And even if less glucose is available, cancer cells will use another source to get energy.
The bottom line is that food can contribute to a patient’s cancer risk, but a patient’s diet is not a sole cause for a GI cancer diagnosis.
2. Myth: Certain foods can cure GI cancer.
The truth: No miraculous diet or pill can cure cancer.
Unfortunately, many have tried to profit from patients’ devastation after a cancer diagnosis by claiming that certain foods or alternative pills can replace medical treatment.
I understand the appeal of these claims when a doctor has delivered bad news. But working with your provider to develop a treatment plan as soon as possible is your best hope for beating cancer. Delaying care or drastically changing your diet might cause further damage to your body.
Alternative treatments (also known as herbal, botanical, or other “natural” products) may help in managing symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment. But using them instead of modern cancer treatment has been shown to be harmful.
3. Myth: Having GI cancer surgery can further spread cancer.
The truth: Though we might find more cancer cells after surgery, they likely existed before surgery.
No matter how advanced our technology is, cancer cells that spread through the body can be too small to show up on the scans and tests we conduct before surgery. When we find them later, it might seem like the cancer spread after surgery, but it was already there; we just couldn’t see it.
Deciding to have surgery for GI cancer is a significant decision for a patient to make. Even though surgery can be a difficult experience, it can help cure life-threatening cancers for many patients.
Recovery can be long and uncomfortable—not because the cancer has spread but because the body requires time to heal from an invasive procedure involving this vital organ system that needs to function smoothly for comfortable everyday existence.
4. Myth: People who have GI cancer surgery need a permanent colostomy bag.
The truth: The majority of patients who have colon cancer do not need a colostomy bag after surgical treatment. If they do, most will be temporary.
The first thing many people think of when they hear “colon cancer” is the colostomy bag that patients have after a colon surgery. During this surgery, a hole is created in the abdominal wall and one end of the colon is pulled through the opening, where waste is then collected in an external bag. Colostomy bags may be permanent in some cases but are temporary for most patients.
Surgical treatment for colon cancer continues to advance, and a colostomy is not the only or even the most common surgery patients receive. Less than 35% of colon cancer survivors had a colostomy to treat their cancer. And it’s permanent in less than 10% of these patients.
I also want to note that life with a permanent colostomy bag can be just as fulfilling as life without one. It certainly requires more adaptability, but modern bags are designed for convenience so that patients can have near-normal life.
5. Myth: Long-term quality of life after GI cancer will significantly decrease.
The truth: Life will be different—but a support system can help patients manage the changes and keep enjoying life.
Following GI cancer treatment, many patients experience changes in their quality of life. That's not a reflection of anyone’s personal strength; it’s just a natural progression after a major disruption to the digestive system.
Recovery is slow; I encourage patients to take it one day at a time. Depending on the treatment, appetite loss, diarrhea, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting may continue a year or more after treatment. Experiencing ongoing physical difficulties can lead to depression and anxiety as well.
MedStar Health specialists—from nutritionists to gastroenterologists to psychologists—are dedicated to helping patients cope with these changes and have a rewarding life. Several innovative, effective treatment options are available to give patients the chance to return to work, enjoy hobbies, and spend time with loved ones. It’s not easy, but it is possible.
When in doubt, ask your doctor.
When it comes to cancer, your health care provider is your best source of information.
Early detection increases the likelihood of successful recovery from GI cancer treatment. By paying more attention to your body’s regular digestive process, you can more easily recognize when you don’t feel right. Be sure to see your doctor immediately if something seems off.