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Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors Treatment (PDQ®)

Stages of Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors

After a gastrointestinal stromal tumor has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the gastrointestinal tract or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the gastrointestinal (GI) tract or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
  • 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).
  • Chest x-ray : An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Bone scan : A procedure to check if there are rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones and is detected by a scanner.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.

Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.

When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.

  • Lymph system. The cancer gets into the lymph system, travels through the lymph vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer gets into the blood, travels through the blood vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.

The metastatic tumor is the same type of tumor as the primary tumor. For example, if a gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) spreads to the liver, the tumor cells in the liver are actually GIST cells. The disease is metastatic GIST, not liver cancer.

The results of diagnostic and staging tests are used to plan treatment.

For many cancers it is important to know the stage of the cancer in order to plan treatment. However, the treatment of GIST is not based on the stage of the cancer. Treatment is based on whether the tumor can be removed by surgery and if the tumor has spread to other parts of the abdomen or to distant parts of the body.

Treatment is based on whether the tumor is:

  • Resectable: These tumors can be removed by surgery .
  • Unresectable: These tumors cannot be completely removed by surgery.
  • Metastatic and recurrent: Metastatic tumors have spread to other parts of the body. Recurrent tumors have recurred (come back) after treatment. Recurrent GISTs may come back in the gastrointestinal tract or in other parts of the body. They are usually found in the abdomen, peritoneum, and/or liver.
  • Refractory: These tumors have not gotten better with treatment.
  • Updated: April 17, 2014