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Abdominal Cancer Symptoms

Updated on February 17, 2011

What you need to know

This hub aims to cover abdominal cancer symptoms. Abdominal organs are composed of so many organs inside the peritoneal (abdominal) cavity for example liver, stomach, spleen, intestines, or retroperitoneal (in the back of the abdominal) cavity for example the kidneys, the adrenal glands, etc.

The symptoms of abdominal cancer will depend on the organs or locations involved. In general, symptoms can be categorized as follows;

Localized Symptoms

These are symptoms from the organs that have cancer themselves. The list of symptoms although not conclusive can be the following;

No symptoms at all

A lot of cancer is detected by incidental finding from routine screening during check-ups. Patients otherwise have no symptoms and feel fine. This is why routine check-ups is important. So next time your check-up is coming up, don't skip it. Make sure that your doctor does screening tests that are appropriate for your age and conditions.  

Pain

The type or quality of pain, location, radiation, duration, frequency and etc. can vary depending on the organs and extent of the cancer. See details on what you need to know when it comes to how to describe your pain at How to Tell Your Doctor about Your Pain.

For stomach (gastric) cancer, it may start off as burning pain or reflux pain especially related to food. As time goes on, it may progress to more consistent pain all the time. As the cancer becomes bigger, the symptoms will become more obvious. That is why diagnosis of cancer in advanced stage is easier. However we want to diagnose early for the high likelihood of cure.

Abdominal fullness

As you can imagine, when cancers at the abdominal organs get bigger, they will take up space of normal tissue and make patients feel fullness. Again, example of gastric cancer, when the mass gets big, it will take up the space of the stomach even between meals. Patients may feel full all the time and that decreases the appetite causing weight loss.

Increased abdominal girth

Either from the increased size of intra-abdominal organs like enlarged spleen, or enlarged lymph nodes or ascites which is presence of intra-abdominal fluid due to inflammation of the peritoneum (lining of intra-abdominal cavity). Patient may notice that the abdomen girth is getting bigger. Sometimes it almost appears that the patient is pregnant. By the time ascites is obvious usually it means the stage of cancer is quite advanced.

 

Paraneoplastic Syndromes

Think of cancer as bad enemies or neighbors. They invade our bodies and hide at the area that is hard to find. They grow bigger and cause symptoms as mentioned above. In the mean time some cancers also secrete hormone-like substances that cause the body to respond with more symptoms that may not have anything to do with the location of the cancers themselves.

For example, colon cancer may produce a substance that circulate in the body. This substance causes level of calcium to increase. In fact calcium level may increase to the point that is unsafe or life-threatening. It is not uncommon for a patient to present himself for the first time with symptoms of high calcium (hypercalcemia i.e. fatigue, a lot of urination, cramps, decreased alertness, seizures, cardiac arrhythmia, etc.) In this case, hypercalcemia is a paraneoplastic syndrome of colon cancer. Investigations will lead doctors to the diagnosis.

Other paraneoplastic syndrome include

  • fever
  • fatigue
  • night sweat
  • loss of appetite

Symptoms as a result of spreading of cancer (metastasis)

For example, patients may present with lung symptoms like coughing or pneumonia due to blockade of airways inside the lungs from colon cancer that spreads to the lungs. Or patients may present with signs and symptoms consistent of stroke when the lesions in the brain are present as a result of cancer spreading from inside the abdomen (lymphoma).

So the message is that the symptoms that patients have may not necessarily reflect the primary problem. Work-ups will show the primary reason for the symptoms.

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