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Understanding the Different Types and Risk Factors of GIST

July 26, 2023

Does your doctor suspect that you might have GIST? Or do you have a loved one with GISTs? If so, you might be unfamiliar with this term since GISTs are quite rare.


As the name indicates, gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) start inside the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. From there, they can sometimes spread throughout the body.


In certain cases, GISTs are tiny and basically harmless. However, in other instances, these tumors can present a serious health issue.


What Exactly Is a GIST?


To start, let’s define some terms.


First of all, tumors are clumps of tissue that develop due to abnormal cell growth. They can be malignant, which means they’re cancerous, or benign, which means not cancerous.


A stromal tumor shows up in the stroma, an organ’s supportive tissue. And the gastrointestinal tract contains the digestive organs, including the esophagus, stomach, intestines, and colon.


Most of the time, a GIST tumor originates in the stomach. But such tumors occasionally take shape inside the small intestine. It’s also possible for GISTs to formulate in the esophagus, colon, or rectum, but those cases are much rarer.


What Are the Survival Rates for People With GISTs?


The five-year survival rate for GIST patients is approximately 83%.


However, survival rates for this disease can vary widely. The main determining factors are how early the cancer is detected and how widely it’s spread.


  • If the GIST is localized, survival rates exceed 90%. A localized tumor has not yet begun to spread.
  • For regional GISTs, the survival rate is about 80%. Regional tumors have spread to the surrounding tissues, lymph nodes, and organs.
  • With distant GISTs, the survival rate is much lower — around 55%. Distant tumors have spread all throughout the body.

Common GIST Cancer Symptoms


In some cases, people with GISTs have no signs of the disorder whatsoever. Other times, GIST symptoms are mild. In still other instances, these side effects can be severe. It all depends on where the tumors are and how large they happen to be.


When GIST cancer symptoms do occur, they often include the following:


  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Blood in the toilet
  • Bowel blockages
  • Painful swallowing


In some cases, people with GISTs can feel some sort of lump in their abdominal region. And, other times, GIST patients feel full after just a few bites.


Diagnosing a GIST Tumor


If you experience any of the GIST symptoms listed above, make an appointment with your doctor right away. Several types of GIST diagnostic tools are available.


One option is a computed tomography (CT) scan, which uses X-rays to render images. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is likewise effective for imaging.


Alternatively, your doctor could perform an upper endoscopy, whereby a flexible tube with a light and a camera lens is inserted into the stomach through the mouth.


Your doctor might also rely on a biopsy, in which part of a tissue is removed and then analyzed in a lab.


Types of Treatment


The extent to which the cancer has spread — the medical term is “metastasized” — largely determines a patient’s GIST treatment. That person’s age, medical history, and overall well-being could all play a role here as well.


For example, a doctor might remove the gastrointestinal tumor via a surgical operation.


Another possibility is a targeted prescription medication — perhaps one that belongs to a class of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs). This medication would suppress the tumors while leaving the surrounding tissues unaffected.


Chemotherapy and radiation may be options as well, although they aren’t often administered to GIST patients.


Furthermore, after patients receive GIST treatments, their doctors will keep looking at those tumors every few months or so. They might utilize a CT scan or a positron emission tomography (PET) scan. (The latter uses radiation.)


What Are the Major Risk Factors?


For one thing, it’s highly unusual that someone under the age of 40 would have GISTs. Rather, people 50 to 80 years old most frequently develop these tumors.


Apart from age, there are some genetic mutations that could increase a person’s odds of having GISTs. At the same time, many of these tumors occur on their own, with no relationship to genetics whatsoever.


On top of that, lifestyle behaviors like smoking and excessive alcohol intake seem to have no effect on GIST formation. It’s a strange medical fact.


In the end, GISTs represent a form of cancer that can be quite treatable if caught early enough. It’s yet another reason why it’s vital to see your doctor whenever you feel like something’s off with your body.