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Upper Gastrointestinal Cancers

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Cancers of the Oesophagus and Stomach

The oesophagus is the tube through which we swallow food and the stomach is an organ in the upper part of the abdomen, which receives swallowed food and begins the process of digestion. Cancers can start in either of these locations. About 400 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in NSW each year and just over 600 people are diagnosed with stomach cancer.

To diagnose oesophageal or stomach cancer a procedure called gastroscopy (sometimes also known as endoscopy, oesophagoscopy or upper GI endoscopy) is performed. This involves a flexible tube being swallowed, through which doctors can look at, and take a sample (biopsy) of any suspicious areas.  It is also possible to attach an ultrasound machine to the gastroscopy equipment and perform endoscopic ultrasound. This provides extra information about possible spread of the cancer.

Other tests that are often performed if oesophageal or stomach cancer is diagnosed include CT scans to look for the size and shape of the cancer as well as to identify signs of spread; and a PET scan to look for spread of the cancer.  Laparoscopy is also often performed to help assess people with stomach cancer. This is a form of keyhole surgery where doctors are able to look inside the abdomen, directly at the outside lining of the stomach and other organs. This is done to check for signs of spread of the cancer within the abdomen.

The Pancreas

The pancreas is an organ of the digestive system, which breaks down food so it can be absorbed and used by body cells. It is a thin, lumpy gland about 13 cm long that lies between your stomach and spine. The pancreas is divided into several parts: the large rounded section is called the head of the pancreas, the middle part is known as the body, and the narrow part at the end is the tail.

A tube called the pancreatic duct connects the pancreas to the first part of the small bowel (small intestine). This section of the small bowel is known as the duodenum. Another tube called the common bile duct passes under the pancreas. This tube carries bile - a substance that helps to digest fats - from the liver and gall bladder to the small bowel.

Pancreatic cancer usually occurs in the head of the pancreas where it may obstruct the bile duct and cause jaundice. It may also spread to nearby nerves and lymph nodes and may cause pain.

The Liver

The liver is the largest organ inside the body. It is found on the right hand side of the abdomen under the ribs, just beneath the right lung and diaphragm.

The liver is shaped like a pyramid and is made up of two sections called the right and left lobes. Blood from both the artery and the portal vein flows to the liver. The portal vein carries nutrients from the intestine back to the liver where they can be made into energy.