Small Intestine Cancer

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is small intestine cancer?

The small intestine is the long, thin segment of the intestine that connects the stomach to the colon. Also called the small bowel, the small intestine is responsible for digesting carbohydrates, proteins and fats and delivering the resulting nutrients to the bloodstream. Different kinds of cancers can involve the small intestine. The most common type of cancer of the small bowel is adenocarcinoma, followed by sarcoma, carcinoid tumors, and lymphoma. Overall, small bowel cancer is rare; about 7,000 people are diagnosed each year with small intestine cancer in the United States (Source: ACS).

It is not known what causes cancer of the small intestine, although some factors that increase your risk of developing the condition have been identified. For example, people with certain familial cancer syndromes or a personal history of colon cancer seem to have an increased risk of developing small intestine cancer.

Symptoms of small intestine cancer can be nonspecific and include diarrhea, upper abdominal pain, weight loss, and fatigue. Since the symptoms of small intestine cancer are vague and there are no screening tests for it, it can be difficult to diagnose. Direct endoscopic examination and imaging technology permits prompt and accurate diagnosis of suspected small intestine cancer.

Treatment of small intestine cancer depends on where the tumor is located, whether it can be removed surgically, and whether it has spread to other areas of the body.

Occasionally, small intestine cancer does not get diagnosed until a serious complication such as intestinal obstruction or perforation occurs. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for severe nausea and vomiting, or serious symptoms such as sweating and severe difficulty breathing, which may be combined with pale or blue lips, rapid heart rate (tachycardia), confusion, or changes in level of consciousness.

Seek prompt medical care if you notice blood in your stool, which can be red, black, or tarry in appearance, or if you have persistent abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), or unexplained weight loss.

What are the symptoms of small intestine cancer?

Symptoms of small intestine cancer tend to be nonspecific and could be associated with a variety of issues.

Common symptoms of small intestine cancer

Common symptoms of small intestine cancer include:

  • Abdominal lump

  • Abdominal pain or cramps

  • Bloody stool (the blood may be red, black, or tarry in texture)

  • Change in bowel habits

  • Constipation

  • Diarrhea

  • Fatigue

  • Flushing of the skin and face

  • Nausea with or without vomiting

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Weakness

  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, complications of small intestine cancer can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms:

  • Bluish coloration of the lips or fingernails

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions

  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)

  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not breathing, choking

  • Severe abdominal pain

What causes small intestine cancer?

Cancer occurs when a cell becomes abnormal and starts to divide and grow uncontrollably. What causes this to occur is not known. Several small intestine cancers are associated with a number of familial cancer syndromes – a hereditary combination of cancer and noncancer disorders. Factors that seem to increase an individual’s risk for disease have been identified for a number of cancers including small intestine cancer.

What are the risk factors for small intestine cancer?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing small intestine cancer. Not all people with risk factors will get small intestine cancer. Risk factors for small intestine cancer include:

  • Alcoholism or heavy alcohol ingestion

  • Celiac disease (severe sensitivity to gluten from wheat and other grains that causes intestinal damage)

  • Certain inherited conditions including familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), MUTYH-associated polyposis, and Peutz-Jeghers syndrome (PJS)

  • Crohn’s disease (inflammatory bowel disease that can affect any part of the intestine)

  • High fat diet

  • Increasing age

  • Smoking

How is small intestine cancer treated?

Treatment of small intestine cancer depends on its location and how far it has spread. Surgery may be able to cure the disease if it is in a location where it can be removed and it has not spread. Other treatments may be necessary if the cancer cannot be surgically removed or if it has spread.

Goal of cancer treatment

The goal of small intestine cancer treatment is to permanently cure the cancer or to bring about a complete remission of the disease. Remission means that there is no longer any sign of the disease in the body, although it may recur or relapse later.

Common treatments for small intestine cancer

Common treatments for small intestine cancer include:

  • Chemotherapy to attack cancer cells

  • Immunotherapy to enhance the immune system’s ability to fight cancer

  • Participation in a clinical trial testing promising new treatments for small intestine cancer

  • Radiation therapy to attack cancer cells

  • Surgery to remove cancer

  • Surgery to reroute healthy small intestine around the cancer

Other treatments for small intestine cancer

Other therapies may be added to help with your general state of health and any complications of the cancer or its treatment. Such therapies include:

  • Antinausea medications if nausea occurs

  • Bisphosphonates to help strengthen bones

  • Blood transfusions to temporarily replace blood components (such as red blood cells or platelets) that have been reduced or lost

  • Dietary counseling to help maintain strength and nutritional status

  • Pain medications if needed to increase comfort

  • Physical therapy to help strengthen the body, increase alertness, reduce fatigue, and improve functional ability during and after cancer treatment

Complementary treatments

These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

Hospice care

In cases in which small intestine cancer has progressed to an advanced stage and has become unresponsive to treatment, the goal of treatment may shift away from curing the disease and focus on measures to keep a person comfortable and maximize the quality of life. Hospice care involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms while providing psychological and spiritual support as well as services to support the patient’s family.

What are the potential complications of small intestine cancer?

Complications of untreated small intestine cancer can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of small intestine cancer include:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 20
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  5. Widmar M, Greenstein AJ, Sachar DB, et al. Small bowel adenocarcinoma in Crohn's disease. J Gastrointest Surg 2011; 15:797.