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Gastric cancers hard to detect; survival rate low

Friday, February 28, 2003

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Gastric cancers like the one Fred Rogers had are typically not discovered until they have spread and are unlikely to be cured.

The problem, explained Dr. Ramesh Ramanathan, director of the gastrointestinal oncology program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, is that no good screening test exists for stomach cancer and that the cancer itself causes few symptoms in the early stages.

As the tumor grows, it can cause indigestion, heartburn or other abdominal discomfort, nausea and vomiting, bloating, and appetite changes and weight loss. But similar symptoms often occur with less serious illnesses, so often they are disregarded.

If stomach cancer is caught early, cure rates are good, Ramanathan said. But if the disease has spread to the lymph nodes, about half of all patients survive for five years after diagnosis.

"A lot of patients have advanced disease or even metastatic [widespread] disease by the time they are diagnosed," Ramanathan said. "If it's metastatic disease, survival is very, very poor."

Rogers was diagnosed with stomach cancer in December by Dr. Lawrence Ellis, a UPMC oncologist, and underwent surgery by Dr. Kenneth Lee on Jan. 6.

Treatment of advanced cancer usually consists of surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Spokesmen for the Rogers family did not specify the stage of his disease or if the operation he had was intended to remove the tumor or to relieve a complication to improve the quality of his life.

Anita Srikameswaran can be reached at anitas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3858.

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