A gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) is a rare but serious medical condition that requires intervention by a specialist. These tumors develop in the cells that help to coordinate the automatic movements of the gastrointestinal tract. A GIST can develop anywhere along the digestive tract, but they are most common in the stomach and small intestine. In today’s blog, we talk more about gastrointestinal stromal tumors and explain how a gastrointestinal surgeon can help you treat them.
Causes and Symptoms Of Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors
Scientists are still learning more about these unique tumors every day, but the belief is that GISTs are commonly caused by a genetic defect that results in the overproduction of an enzyme called tyrosine kinase. This can lead to an overgrowth of cells that can eventually form into gastrointestinal stromal tumors. GISTs can also be caused by too much of a specific protein in the body, but this is much less common.
Aside from the specific genetic cause, some factors that can put you at an elevated risk for GIST formation include:
- Being male
- Being over the age of 50
- Having a history of neurofibromatosis type 1
- Having a family history of GISTs
Since there is no preventative screening test for gastrointestinal stromal tumors, it’s imperative that you know the warning signs and talk to your doctor if you notice any of the symptoms. Symptoms of a GIST include:
- Stomach pain
- Bloody stools or vomit
- Feeling full after eating a small amount
- Loss of appetite or weight loss
- A lump in the abdominal area
These symptoms are not unique to gastrointestinal stromal tumors, so make sure you talk to your primary care physician or a specialist if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms so that they can get to the bottom of your health issue.
Diagnosing And Treating GISTs
If you or your physician believe you may be dealing with a GIST, they may order one of a few different tests. After talking about your symptoms and family history with your doctor, they may order a diagnostic test to get a better idea of what’s going on in your digestive system. The most common diagnostic test to look for the presence of a GIST is an endoscopy. This involves the insertion of a small, flexible tube with a microcamera attached to the tip. This tube is carefully inserted through your mouth, down your esophagus and into position to provide a clear view of the potential GIST to the physician who can visualize the site on a video feed relayed by the microcamera.
Other tests to look for abnormal growths include an MRI or CT scan. If a growth is detected, your gastrointestinal surgeon may also order a biopsy, which involves a small tissue collection of the area to be tested to look for the presence of cancer.
Treatment will be dependent on a number of factors, including the size and location of the tumor. Even if the growth does not appear to be cancerous, active treatment may be advised because GISTs have some risk of becoming malignant. When it does spread, it typically ends up affecting the liver or the abdominal wall.
In most cases, treatment involves targeting the area with surgery. The goal of the operation is to fully remove the entire tumor. If the tumor has become too large to safely remove, your specialist may attempt to shrink the tumor with targeted therapy before operating on the site. Surgery has good success rates when the tumor is caught in an early stage or before it spreads to other areas, which again speaks to the importance of acknowledging and acting on the signs of a problem. If the cancer has spread, additional treatment after tumor removal may be required.
If you are dealing with a GIST or have symptoms that suggest you could be dealing with a gastrointestinal stromal tumor, reach out to a specialist in your area. In the greater Twin Cities area, we hope you’ll choose Dr. Bhatti and the team at Bhatti GI Consultants.