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Gastrointestinal cancer

Diagnosis of gastrointestinal cancer

Digestive system cancers are typically diagnosed using one or more of the following tools:

  • Colonoscopy, in which a thin tube with a camera on it is inserted into the colon to look for and remove any cancerous or precancerous polyps
  • Endoscopy, in which the endoscope is inserted into the esophagus (throat) and used to examine the esophagus, stomach, and small bowel
  • Laparoscopy, in which a laparoscope (tiny camera) is inserted through a small incision
  • Imaging tests such as x-rays (with or without barium contrast), MRIs, PET scans, CT scans, and ultrasounds
  • Biopsy of suspected areas of cancer growth
  • A thorough physical exam, review of your history, and discussion of any concerns
  • Blood tests to look for elevated enzymes and signs of cancer that may be present in the blood


Your treatment options will depend on the specific type of GI cancer. Surgery is a standard treatment for most GI cancers; removing all or part of the colon, stomach, gallbladder, and other digestive organs may be the most effective way to eliminate cancer cells in your body.

Your doctor may also recommend the following treatment options:

  • Chemotherapy to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing
  • Radiation therapy to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors
  • Targeted therapy to destroy cancer by using markers present only on cancer cells


Many people have recovered from GI cancers. The survivability (measured as the number of people living post-diagnosis for more than five years) has more than tripled for even the most serious of GI cancers over the past 30 years.

Cancer requires long-term, follow-up care to make sure that cancer growth does not recur. Your doctor will speak with you regarding your long-term screening and monitoring plan based on your age, the type of cancer, its stage, and the treatment you received.

In some cases, GI cancers will require some lifestyle adjustments. If you received surgery to remove part or all of your bowel, colon, or other elements of your digestive system, you might need to adjust your diet or use a bag called a colostomy bag, either temporarily or permanently. Your doctor can advise you on the best method of preparing for and coping with these kinds of changes as you return to optimal health following a GI cancer diagnosis.

Dignity Health offers personalized treatment for people with gastrointestinal cancer. Trust Dignity Health to walk you through your journey. From evaluating your risk factors to recommending treatments, we are here to help.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.