Small Intestine Cancer

small intestineSmall intestine cancer is a rare disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the small intestine.

The small intestine is part of the body’s digestive system, which also includes the esophagus, stomach, and large intestine. The digestive system removes and processes nutrients (vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and water) from foods and helps pass waste material out of the body. The small intestine is a long tube that connects the stomach to the large intestine. It folds many times to fit inside the abdomen.

There are five types of small intestine cancer. The types of cancer found in the small intestine are adenocarcinoma, sarcoma, carcinoid tumors, gastrointestinal stromal tumor, and lymphoma. This summary discusses adenocarcinoma and leiomyosarcoma (a type of sarcoma).

Adenocarcinoma starts in glandular cells in the lining of the small intestine and is the most common type of small intestine cancer. Most of these tumors occur in the part of the small intestine near the stomach. They may grow and block the intestine.

Leiomyosarcoma starts in the smooth muscle cells of the small intestine. Most of these tumors occur in the part of the small intestine near the large intestine.

Visit the National Cancer Institute for information about other types of small intestine cancer.

Risk Factors
Symptoms
Screening and Diagnosis
Staging
Treatment
Support

 

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Risk Factors

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. Risk factors for small intestine cancer include the following:

  • Eating a high-fat diet.
  • Having Crohn disease.
  • Having celiac disease.
  • Having familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP).

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Symptoms

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by small intestine cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Pain or cramps in the middle of the abdomen.
  • Weight loss with no known reason.
  • A lump in the abdomen.
  • Blood in the stool.

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Screening and Diagnosis

Tests that examine the small intestine are used to detect (find), diagnose, and stage small intestine cancer. Procedures that make pictures of the small intestine and the area around it help diagnose small intestine cancer and show how far the cancer has spread. The process used to find out if cancer cells have spread within and around the small intestine is called staging.

In order to plan treatment, it is important to know the type of small intestine cancer and whether the tumor can be removed by surgery. Tests and procedures to detect, diagnose, and stage small intestine cancer are usually done at the same time. The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Blood chemistry studies: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease in the organ or tissue that produces it.
  • Liver function tests: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by the liver. A higher than normal amount of a substance can be a sign of liver disease that may be caused by small intestine cancer.
  • Endoscopy: A procedure to look at organs and tissues inside the body to check for abnormal areas. There are different types of endoscopy:
    • Upper endoscopy: A procedure to look at the inside of the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum (first part of the small intestine, near the stomach). An endoscope is inserted through the mouth and into the esophagus, stomach, and duodenum. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
    • Capsule endoscopy: A procedure to look at the inside of the small intestine. A capsule that is about the size of a large pill and contains a light and a tiny wireless camera is swallowed by the patient. The capsule travels through the digestive tract, including the small intestine, and sends many pictures of the inside of the digestive tract to a recorder that is worn around the waist or over the shoulder. The pictures are sent from the recorder to a computer and viewed by the doctor who checks for signs of cancer. The capsule passes out of the body during a bowel movement.
    • Double balloon endoscopy: A procedure to look at the inside of the small intestine. A special instrument made up of two tubes (one inside the other) is inserted through the mouth or rectum and into the small intestine. The inside tube (an endoscope with a light and lens for viewing) is moved through part of the small intestine and a balloon at the end of it is inflated to keep the endoscope in place. Next, the outer tube is moved through the small intestine to reach the end of the endoscope, and a balloon at the end of the outer tube is inflated to keep it in place. Then, the balloon at the end of the endoscope is deflated and the endoscope is moved through the next part of the small intestine. These steps are repeated many times as the tubes move through the small intestine. The doctor is able to see the inside of the small intestine through the endoscope and use a tool to remove samples of abnormal tissue. The tissue samples are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer. This procedure may be done if the results of a capsule endoscopy are abnormal. This procedure is also called double balloon enteroscopy.
  • Laparotomy: A surgical procedure in which an incision (cut) is made in the wall of the abdomen to check the inside of the abdomen for signs of disease. The size of the incision depends on the reason the laparotomy is being done. Sometimes organs or lymph nodes are removed or tissue samples are taken and checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer. This may be done during an endoscopy or laparotomy. The sample is checked by a pathologist to see if it contains cancer cells.
  • Upper GI series with small bowel follow-through: A series of x-rays of the esophagus, stomach, and small bowel. The patient drinks a liquid that contains barium (a silver-white metallic compound). The liquid coats the esophagus, stomach, and small bowel. X-rays are taken at different times as the barium travels through the upper GI tract and small bowel.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).

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Staging

Tests and procedures to stage small intestine cancer are usually done at the same time as diagnosis. Staging is used to find out how far the cancer has spread, but treatment decisions are not based on stage.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body: 

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.

Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body. When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.

  • Lymph system. The cancer gets into the lymph system, travels through the lymph vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer gets into the blood, travels through the blood vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.

The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if small intestine cancer spreads to the liver, the cancer cells in the liver are actually small intestine cancer cells. The disease is metastatic small intestine cancer, not liver cancer.

Small intestine cancer is grouped according to whether or not the tumor can be completely removed by surgery. Treatment depends on whether the tumor can be removed by surgery and if the cancer is being treated as a primary tumor or is metastatic cancer.

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Treatment

At Huntsman Cancer Institute, small intestine cancer is treated by a team of specialists, including gastroenterologists (doctors who specialize in treating problems of the digestive organs), surgeons, medical oncologists (doctors who treat cancer with medicine), radiation oncologists (doctors who treat cancer with radiation), nurses, dietitians, and social workers.

Different types of treatments are available for patients with small intestine cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Three types of standard treatment are used:

New treatments are being tested in clinical trials.

Surgery

Surgery is the most common treatment of small intestine cancer. One of the following types of surgery may be done:

  • Resection: Surgery to remove part or all of an organ that contains cancer. The resection may include the small intestine and nearby organs (if the cancer has spread). The doctor may remove the section of the small intestine that contains cancer and perform an anastomosis (joining the cut ends of the intestine together). The doctor will usually remove lymph nodes near the small intestine and examine them under a microscope to see whether they contain cancer.
  • Bypass: Surgery to allow food in the small intestine to go around (bypass) a tumor that is blocking the intestine but cannot be removed.

Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. Learn more about this treatment in our Introduction to Chemotherapy video:

 

Clinical trials

This section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. For more information, visit HCI's clinical trials website.

  • Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient's immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or immunotherapy.
  • Radiosensitizers are drugs that make tumor cells more sensitive to radiation therapy. Combining radiation therapy with radiosensitizers may kill more tumor cells.

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Support

When you or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer, concerns about treatments and managing side effects, hospital stays, and medical bills are common. You may also worry about caring for your family, employment, or how to continue normal daily activities.

Here's where you can go for support:

  • Your health care team can answer your questions and talk to you about your concerns. They can help you with any side effects and keep you informed of all your treatments, test results, and future doctor visits.
  • The G. Mitchell Morris Cancer Learning Center has hundreds of free brochures and more than 3,000 books, DVDs, and CDs available for checkout. You can browse the library, perform Internet research, or talk with a cancer information specialist.
  • Our Patient and Family Support Services professionals offer HCI patients and their families emotional support and resources for coping with cancer and its impact on daily life.
  • The Linda B. and Robert B. Wiggins Wellness-Survivorship Center offers support groups, classes, and activities aimed to increase the quality of life and well-being of HCI patients and their families.

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Adapted from the National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries
This information last updated on HCI website January 2014

*If you are interested in a trial that is currently marked *Not Open, please contact the Patient Education team at 1-888-424-2100 or patient.education@hci.utah.edu for other trial options. Enrollment is updated daily.

Forte Research Systems in partnership with Huntsman Cancer Institute

Related Documents

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HCI Resources

 

Make An Appointment

kevin walker make an appointmentGastrointestinal Cancer Program
Care coordinator: Christy Steele
Phone: 801-587-4422
E-mail: christy.steele@hci.utah.edu

Did You Know?

  • There are five types of small intestine cancer: adenocarcinoma, sarcoma, gastrointestinal stromal tumors, carcinoid tumors, and lymphoma.
  • Tests and procedures to stage and stage small intestine cancer are usually done at the same time.
  • Having Crohn's disease or celiac disease can increase a person's risk of developing small intestine cancer.
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