Types of Gastrointestinal Cancer | MedStar Health


Gastrointestinal cancer (GI cancer) is the most common and the most fatal of all cancers, yet continues to be dramatically underfunded. In 2022, 290,000 Americans will be diagnosed with GI cancer, and more than 50% will die within five years. No two tumors are exactly alike.

Gastrointestinal (GI) cancer includes cancer of the GI organs that digest and draw nutrients from food:

  • Esophagus

  • Stomach

  • Small intestine

  • Large intestine

GI cancer can also occur in the following gastrointestinal-related organs:<

  • Rectum

  • Anal canal

  • Pancreas

  • Gallbladder

  • Bile duct

  • Liver

The Ruesch Center for the Cure of Gastrointestinal Cancers at the MedStar Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center is a global pioneer, unmatched by any other GI cancer program. Relentlessly fighting a smarter war against GI cancer by partnering with patients based on their unique needs, the Ruesch Center is carrying out cutting-edge, innovative research, and providing the highest standard of care and individualized cures.

We understand how difficult a cancer diagnosis is, and we want you to know that our cancer teams are devoted to your care. From diagnosis to treatment to follow-up visits, our knowledgeable doctors and nurses will answer any questions you may have and will be with you every step of the way.

Our approach

Gastrointestinal cancer affects men and women, young and old. There are many types of these cancers and several different types of tumors affecting each gastrointestinal organ. As a result, each case requires an individualized treatment plan that involves specialists across several disciplines working together. Here, our doctors are experts in their respective fields, focusing exclusively on treating certain types of gastrointestinal cancers.

Because of this deep expertise, you can expect to receive the latest treatment options the moment they become available. As a team, we'll determine what will most effectively treat your cancer, prevent recurrence, and allow for the best quality of life. Depending on your cancer's location, size, and stage, your individualized treatment plan may include:

Beyond physical care, you can expect our compassionate team to support you throughout your entire journey and help  you understand your options as you navigate treatment and survivorship.

High-risk GI cancer prevention program

Anyone can develop a gastrointestinal cancer but some people have a higher risk because of a family history, certain hereditary genes, or a personal history of GI cancer or related hereditary conditions, such as Lynch Syndrome. Because we know that these cancers are more easily treated when found early, we offer comprehensive genetic counseling, and other services to help you understand and mitigate your risk of developing GI cancer. Your personalized prevention plan may involve screening, genetic testing, or clinical trials that may help with early detection.

Types of gastrointestinal cancer

  • Anal cancer

    The anus lies at the end of the large intestine and is the canal that passes stool out of the body. When cancer cells grow out of control in the tissue of the anus, it's called anal cancer. You may have an increased risk of developing this if you have human papillomavirus (HPV). Treatment will vary based on the stage of the cancer and may involve chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and/or surgery.

  • Appendix cancer

    Also called appendiceal cancer, cancer in the appendix affects the small organ located close to where the large and small intestines meet. It's a very rare cancer that is typically treated with surgery and/or chemotherapy.

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  • Bile duct cancer

    The bile ducts transport bile between the liver and gallbladder and intestines. Cancer can develop in the bile ducts on the inside or outside of the liver. Bile duct cancer is also known as cholangiocarcinoma.

    It's a rare disease, and patients with colitis or certain liver diseases may be at an increased risk of developing this type of cancer. Treatment options will vary based on where the cancer is located, how far it has spread, and whether or not it can be removed with surgery. Bile duct cancer treatment may also involve chemotherapy or radiation therapy as well as palliative surgery to relieve symptoms. In some cases, patients may benefit from a liver transplant.

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  • Colon cancer

    Colon cancer can develop in the longest part of the large intestine, most commonly from noncancerous polyps. Often referred to as colorectal cancer when combined with rectal cancer, colon cancer is preventable through regular colonoscopies. During a colonoscopy, a gastroenterologist can remove polyps, which are noncancerous growths that can develop into cancer. Once cancer develops in the colon, surgery is typically the cornerstone of treatment. In some cases, patients also benefit from chemotherapy before or after surgery.

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  • Esophageal cancer

    When cancer begins in the esophagus, it's called esophageal cancer. Esophageal cancer is often associated with smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, and Barrett's esophagus. Because the esophagus is responsible for transporting food from the throat to the stomach, there are special nutritional considerations for patients with esophageal cancer. Treatment will vary but may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and/or targeted therapies that use novel ways to kill cancer cells.

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  • Gallbladder cancer

    The gallbladder is a small organ located under the liver. Gallbladder cancer is a rare type of cancer that generally affects adults over 70. People who have a history of gallstones may be at an increased risk of developing the disease. It's difficult to detect early, which means it's often not found until it has spread to other organs. Treatment varies based on the stage of the cancer but may involve surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and/or targeted therapy.

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  • Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors (GIST)

    Gastrointestinal stromal tumor, commonly called GIST, is a rare type of sarcoma that forms along the gastrointestinal tract, but mostly starts in the stomach or small intestine.

    Surgery is the standard treatment, but not all GISTs can be removed. Our clinical trials have studied the newest drugs available to target GIST, including the first targeted therapy developed for GIST. These drugs do not cure the disease, but they do help some tumors stop growing or shrink, which has extended the survival rate for patients with recurrent or metastatic GIST.

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  • Liver cancer

    As one of the largest organs in the body, the liver is designed to help you digest food. When cancer begins in the liver, it's called primary liver cancer. More commonly, cancer spreads from other organs in the body to the liver, which is called liver metastases. Both types of liver cancer are treated differently but may involve surgery, interventional radiology, systemic therapies, and other treatment options.

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  • Pancreatic cancer

    The pancreas is a small gland in the abdomen located between the stomach and the intestines. There are many different types of tumors that can develop in the pancreas. Most pancreatic cancers begin in the pancreas ducts, but occasionally, neuroendocrine tumors develop in the islet cells. Each treatment approach varies based on the characteristics of the cancer. We may recommend surgery, and our surgeons are experts in performing complex traditional surgery as well as minimally invasive procedures. Treatment may also include chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy, as well as state-of-the-art clinical trials which offer new approaches for treating the disease.

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  • Rectal cancer

    When cancer begins in the rectum, it's called rectal cancer or colorectal cancer, when grouped with colon cancer. Rectal cancer can often be prevented through regular colonoscopies, which allow doctors to find and remove polyps, or noncancerous growths that can develop into cancer over time. Treatment for rectal cancer typically involves complex surgery, and our surgeons are experienced in minimally invasive procedures that preserve the sphincter, a muscle that is necessary for normal bathroom function. Some patients also benefit from radiation and/or chemotherapy before or after surgery.

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  • Small intestine cancer

    The small intestine is part of the digestive system, helping to break down food and absorb nutrients. When cancer develops in the small intestine, it's called small intestine cancer or small bowel cancer. It's a rare cancer and treatment options vary based on whether the tumor can be removed by surgery. Other treatment options may include chemotherapy or radiation therapy, as well as radiosensitizers that may make tumors more responsive to radiation therapy.

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  • Stomach cancer

    Stomach cancer (gastric cancer) occurs when cancerous cells develop in the lining of the stomach. While stomach cancer can be deadly, survival rates are improving thanks to advances in staging and surgical techniques. Getting an accurate diagnosis is an important step that guides personalized treatment from our multidisciplinary team. Treatment may involve surgery, and some patients are candidates for minimally invasive or robotic approaches that result in less risk and faster recoveries. Chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy may also play a role in treatment, and we help to manage any symptoms and side effects of these treatments from the beginning of care.

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Looking for expert cancer care?

With multiple locations throughout the region, patients have access to many of the nation’s renowned cancer specialists offering high quality care, second opinions and a chance for better outcomes close to where they live and work. Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the nation’s comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), serves as the research engine allowing patients access to clinical trials that often lead to breakthroughs in cancer care.

Why choose us

At MedStar Health, we believe the future of gastrointestinal cancer treatment hinges on a highly personalized approach to finding the right treatment options for the right patients. As an international center of excellence, part of one of only 51 comprehensive cancer centers in the country, and one of only a few that focuses exclusively on GI cancers, we are working tirelessly by:

  • Advancing science and research: In the last four years, the Ruesch Center has supported more than 50 clinical trials, with 119 (18%) of our current patients enrolled on a trial. More than 2,000 tissue and blood samples, in combination with clinical data, of GI patients have been stored and are available for use in future cancer research. Learn more about current research and clinical trials.

  • Changing lives and outcomes: Our nurse navigators, who offer critical medical guidance, support, and direction for patients and their families through the cancer treatment process, have touched the lives of more than 2,800 patients.

  • Cultivating innovators of the future: Our student summer program has grown from two students in the early years to 14 in the coming summer and engages participants in research and patient care.

  • Collaborating and sharing insights: The center has established scientific collaborations with over 12 local, national, and international partners, including the creation of a Global Alliance, resulting in research papers that have influenced treatment across the globe.