Stomach ulcer vs stomach cancer

People tend to suspect stomach ulcers when they experience symptoms like heartburn and abdominal pain, but what if you have a different health condition that presents with similar symptoms as a stomach ulcer?

A professor teaching about the mucosa lining of the stomach

Key takeaways:

  • Stomach ulcers and stomach cancers are two different medical conditions that may have some overlapping symptoms.
  • The difference between stomach ulcer and stomach cancer lies in the causes, risk factors, outlook, and treatment.
  • Stomach ulcers are caused by infection with the H. pylori bacteria or long-term excessive use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). On the other hand, stomach ulcers are caused by abnormal growth of cells in the stomach, which can spread and increase in size, especially if not treated.

Stomach ulcers and stomach cancer are digestive system diseases affecting the stomach lining. Because stomach ulcers and stomach cancer affect the same organ- the stomach, they share some similar symptoms. However, they are two different conditions with different causes, risk factors, and treatment methods.

Stomach ulcers are often not as severe and life-threatening as stomach cancer. This is because stomach cancer can be malignant and lead to death. On, the contrary, a person with an ulcer can live a healthy, normal life with treatment, lifestyle changes, and dietary management. Also, not everyone with a stomach ulcer will experience severe symptoms.

Stomach cancers can be treated, especially when detected early, but the dangerous thing about this health condition is that it may go undetected in its early stage, giving it time to grow and spread to other parts of the body. At that later stage, stomach cancer is more severe and life-threatening, and it has a lower chance of responding to treatment.

If you experience gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, heartburn, or abdominal pain, the only way to accurately know what is causing the problem is by seeing a healthcare professional, who will order some tests for you. Your doctor will run certain tests to determine if you have a stomach ulcer, cancer, or another health condition.

This article will compare stomach ulcers and stomach cancer, discussing the differences between the two health conditions. It will highlight the causes of stomach ulcers and stomach cancer, the symptoms of stomach ulcers and stomach cancer, and the treatments for stomach ulcers and stomach cancer.

Stomach ulcer vs stomach cancer: The differences

Here is a summary table that compares stomach ulcers vs. stomach cancer and shows how they are different.

Stomach ulcer vs. stomach cancer: The differences

Stomach Ulcer

Stomach Cancer

Stomach ulcer is a sore in the lining of the stomach.

Stomach cancer occurs when cells in the stomach become cancerous, growing out of control.

Stomach ulcers can be easily treated with proton pump inhibitors, histamine blockers, and antibiotics.

Stomach cancer treatment is more complex, and the condition is more challenging to manage.

Stomach ulcer is not metastatic, it does not spread.

Stomach cancer is metastatic, it can spread from the stomach to other parts of the body.

Stomach ulcer develops faster than stomach cancer

Stomach cancer takes time to develop.

Stomach ulcer is not fatal and rarely causes death

Stomach cancer is fatal, and can cause death.

What is a stomach ulcer?

Stomach ulcers are sores in the stomach lining that can be caused by an infection with H. pylori or by taking too many nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They often cause pain in the upper part of the abdomen.

Stomach ulcers are a type of peptic ulcer. They happen when infection by H. pylori or too much use of NSAIDs changes the thick mucus layer on the lining of the stomach, making it thinner. When this happens, digestive acids can easily eat away at the lining of the stomach.

Digestive acids in the stomach help with metabolic functions like digestion. However, when the stomach lining gets thinner, the digestive acid can eat into the stomach lining, causing sores.

What is stomach cancer?

Stomach cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in the stomach that can later spread to other body parts. It is one of the most common types of cancer and the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths.

They can start developing anywhere in the stomach, but the most common point of development is at the gastroesophageal junction. The gastroesophageal junction is where the stomach connects to the esophagus (the long tube connecting the mouth to the stomach).

Stomach cancers are not benign; they are metastatic, which means they can spread even beyond the stomach into the bloodstream, lymphatic vessels, and other parts of the body.

Stomach cancer also has different classifications based on what tissue it first starts to develop in.

  • Lymphomas - Are stomach cancer that starts from lymphocytes (blood cells)
  • Sarcomas - A type of stomach cancer that starts developing from fat or muscle
  • Adenocarcinomas - These are the most common type of stomach cancer that usually develops from the stomach lining
  • Metastatic stomach cancers - These types spread into the stomach from other parts of the body like the breast and liver

Causes of stomach ulcer vs. stomach cancer

The difference between stomach ulcer and stomach cancer also lies in their causes.

Causes of stomach ulcer

Two things are the major causes of stomach ulcers:

  • Infection with Helicobacter Pylori bacteria
  • Excessive use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, diclofenac, and ibuprofen.

Sometimes, Zollinger-Ellison syndrome can contribute to stomach ulcers. Zollinger-Ellison syndrome is a disease that causes a tumor to grow in the pancreas or the upper part of the small intestine. It causes the secretion of large amounts of gastrin from the tumors. Gastrin causes the stomach to produce excess acids.

Helicobacter pylori infection which is one of the primary causes of stomach ulcer is also one of the strongest risk factor for stomach cancer

Causes of stomach cancer

Stomach cancer develops when the cells in your stomach become cancerous. These cells start growing abnormally and become harmful.

Like other types of cancer, stomach cancer's actual causes are unknown. However, certain factors can increase your risks, such as:

  • Infection by H.pylori bacteria
  • Polyps (abnormal tissue growth in the stomach lining)
  • Smoking and alcohol
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Gene changes or mutations that can be passed from parents to offspring, also called inherited cancer syndromes, e.g., Lynch syndromes

Symptoms of stomach ulcer vs. stomach cancer

Stomach ulcers and stomach cancer share some similar symptoms, which is why a person may mistake one for the other.

Symptoms of stomach ulcer

  • Excessive acid production
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Dark stools
  • Bloating (when your stomach feels full and tight)
  • Upper mid-abdomen pain

Symptoms of stomach cancer

It is easy for stomach cancer to go undetected at an early stage because it may not present with symptoms initially. But, when it does cause symptoms, the following are some common symptoms associated with stomach cancers:

  • Bloating, which occurs regularly
  • Heartburn that becomes frequent
  • Feeling full when you have taken a small amount of food
  • Fatigue
  • Regular abdominal pain
  • Jaundice happens when cancer extends to the liver
  • Bloody stools
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Sometimes, a person with a chronic stomach ulcer can develop stomach cancer after some years. Symptoms in someone with a stomach ulcer (also called ALARM symptoms) that should prompt a medical provider to do further tests to look for stomach cancer are as follows:

  • Age greater than 55 years
  • A family history of stomach cancer
  • Difficulty with swallowing
  • Unplanned or unexplained weight loss
  • Low blood levels requiring blood transfusion even without visible bleeding from any part of the body

Treatment of stomach ulcer vs. stomach cancer

Because they are two different health conditions, stomach ulcers and stomach cancers are treated differently.

How to treat stomach ulcer

Your doctor will diagnose you to confirm the cause of your symptoms. They can carry out tests like the H. pylori urea breath test and gastroscopy. If test results show that you have a stomach ulcer, they will recommend treatments based on symptoms, severity, and the cause.

Treatment for stomach ulcers may include medications, lifestyle changes, and home remedies that can help treat stomach ulcers.

Treatment options for stomach ulcers include:

  1. Medications that can kill the H.pylori bacteria bacteria - If the cause of your ulcer were infection by H.pylori bacteria, your doctor would recommend antibiotics. Some antibiotics your doctor may prescribe include metronidazole, clarithromycin, amoxicillin, and tetracycline.
  2. Medications that will reduce gastric acid production - An increase in digestive acids are common in cases of stomach ulcers. One of the treatment plans will be to reduce stomach acids. In that case, your doctor may recommend acid or histamine blockers like nizatidine, cimetidine, and famotidine. These blockers will help reduce the acid level and relieve pain.
  3. Medications that can block gastric acid production - These medications will help block out the cells in the stomach that produce acids. The drugs commonly used for this are proton pump inhibitors.

How to treat stomach cancer

There are different treatment options for stomach cancer. Each treatment option depends on the stage of cancer and the areas affected. Your oncologist will recommend the treatment that is ideal for your condition.

Some available treatment options for stomach cancer include:

1. Surgery

Surgery is one of the major treatments for early-stage cancer. It can also be used to treat other stages of cancer. Two types of stomach cancer surgeries that surgeons often perform are subtotal and total gastrectomies.

Subtotal gastrectomy involves removing the parts of the stomach affected by cancer. Also, lymph nodes, organs, and tissues that are affected may be removed. But in total gastrectomy, the stomach will be completely removed. Also, nearby organs like the esophagus, lymph nodes, and small intestine that are affected may be removed too.

2. Endoscopic mucosal resection

This treatment is used when stomach cancer is still in its early stages. In this procedure, an endoscope (a thin instrument like a tube with a light and lens for viewing) will be used to remove the precancerous growths in the lining of the stomach. This procedure doesn't need surgery.

3. Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy aims to stop cancer cells from dividing and possibly kill them. In the chemotherapy procedure, drugs are used to stop the growth of the cancer cells, and they can be either taken by mouth or given through the vein.

4. Radiation therapy

Radiation therapies use x-rays and other forms of radiation to kill cancer cells and prevent them from growing.

5. Chemoradiation

This is a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy to kill or stop cancerous cells from growing and spreading.

What to do if you have a stomach ulcer or cancer symptoms

Having gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, bloating, dark and bloody stools, and abdominal pain doesn't necessarily mean you have a stomach ulcer or stomach cancer, so do not panic. Several other health conditions share similar symptoms. Also, in some cases, they may be symptoms of less severe conditions. But you can never be sure unless you visit the hospital.

If you have any of the symptoms listed in this article, you should see a doctor, especially if you have more than one symptom at the same time. Keep in mind that while early detection of diseases doesn't guarantee their treatment, in most cases, it increases the success rates of their treatments.

Also, when getting your treatment, feel free to ask your healthcare team questions every step of the way. Cooperate with them by carefully following your treatment plan, and don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

Wrap up

Since both stomach ulcers and stomach cancer affect the lining of the stomach, the symptoms are usually similar. But stomach ulcers and stomach cancer are two distinct health conditions.

Visiting your doctor when you notice any unusual symptoms is the best way to get the right answers to your health-related questions. Early disease detection can help to prevent further complications.

Your doctor will recommend treatments that are based on your health condition and tailored to your specific health needs.

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