Summary

Key Points

  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumor is a disease in which abnormal cells form in the tissues of the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Genetic factors can increase the risk of having a gastrointestinal stromal tumor.
  • Signs of gastrointestinal stromal tumors include blood in the stool or vomit.
  • Tests that examine the GI tract are used to detect (find) and diagnose gastrointestinal stromal tumors.
  • Very small GISTs are common.
  • Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

Gastrointestinal stromal tumor is a disease in which abnormal cells form in the tissues of the gastrointestinal tract.

The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is part of the body’s digestive system. It helps to digest food and takes nutrients (vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and water) from food so they can be used by the body. The GI tract is made up of the following organs:

  • Stomach.
  • Small intestine.
  • Large intestine (colon).

Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) may be malignant (cancer) or benign (not cancer). They are most common in the stomach and small intestine but may be found anywhere in or near the GI tract. Some scientists believe that GISTs begin in cells called interstitial cells of Cajal (ICC), in the wall of the GI tract.

See the PDQ summary about Unusual Cancers of Childhood Treatment for information on the treatment of GIST in children.

Screening and Detection

Tests that examine the GI tract are used to detect (find) and diagnose gastrointestinal stromal tumors.

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.
  • 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).
  • Endoscopic ultrasound and biopsy: Endoscopy and ultrasound are used to make an image of the upper GI tract and a biopsy is done. An endoscope (a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing) is inserted through the mouth and into the esophagus, stomach, and first part of the small intestine. A probe at the end of the endoscope is used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. This procedure is also called endosonography. Guided by the sonogram, the doctor removes tissue using a thin, hollow needle. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells.

If cancer is found, the following tests may be done to study the cancer cells:

  • Immunohistochemistry: A test that uses antibodies to check for certain antigens in a sample of tissue. The antibody is usually linked to a radioactive substance or a dye that causes the tissue to light up under a microscope. This type of test may be used to tell the difference between different types of cancer.
  • Mitotic rate: A measure of how fast the cancer cells are dividing and growing. The mitotic rate is found by counting the number of cells dividing in a certain amount of cancer tissue.

Very small GISTs are common.

Sometimes GISTs are smaller than the eraser on top of a pencil. Tumors may be found during a procedure that is done for another reason, such as an x-ray or surgery. Some of these small tumors will not grow and cause signs or symptoms or spread to the abdomen or other parts of the body. Doctors do not agree on whether these small tumors should be removed or whether they should be watched to see if they begin to grow.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs of gastrointestinal stromal tumors include blood in the stool or vomit.

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

  • Blood (either bright red or very dark) in the stool or vomit.
  • Pain in the abdomen, which may be severe.
  • Feeling very tired.
  • Trouble or pain when swallowing.
  • Feeling full after only a little food is eaten.

Treatment Options

There are different types of treatment for patients with gastrointestinal stromal tumors.

Different types of treatments are available for patients with gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs). 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.

Four types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

If the GIST has not spread and is in a place where surgery can be safely done, the tumor and some of the tissue around it may be removed. Sometimes surgery is done using a laparoscope (a thin, lighted tube) to see inside the body. Small incisions (cuts) are made in the wall of the abdomen and a laparoscope is inserted into one of the incisions. Instruments may be inserted through the same incision or through other incisions to remove organs or tissues.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells.

Tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) are targeted therapy drugs that block signals needed for tumors to grow. TKIs may be used to treat GISTs that cannot be removed by surgery or to shrink GISTs so they become small enough to be removed by surgery. Imatinib mesylate and sunitinib are two TKIs used to treat GISTs. TKIs are sometimes given for as long as the tumor does not grow and serious side effects do not occur.

See Drugs Approved for Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors for more information.

Watchful waiting

Watchful waiting is closely monitoring a patient’s condition without giving any treatment until signs or symptoms appear or change.

Supportive care

If a GIST gets worse during treatment or there are side effects, supportive care is usually given. The goal of supportive care is to prevent or treat the symptoms of a disease, side effects caused by treatment, and psychological, social, and spiritual problems related to a disease or its treatment. Supportive care helps improve the quality of life of patients who have a serious or life-threatening disease. Radiation therapy is sometimes given as supportive care to relieve pain in patients with large tumors that have spread.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Follow-up for GISTs that were removed by surgery may include CT scan of the liver and pelvis or watchful waiting. For GISTs that are treated with tyrosine kinase inhibitors, follow-up tests, such as CT, MRI, or PET scans, may be done to check how well the targeted therapy is working.

Last Updated: 2015-07-24

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