Until recently, patients with stomach cancer had few treatment options, especially if they were diagnosed at an advanced stage of the disease. For those diagnosed at earlier stages, full surgical removal of the stomach (gastrectomy) was the only option with the potential for cure. However, this often carried serious complications and severely reduced patients' quality of life.
Beginning in the late 1980s, patients with early-stage disease began to benefit from two major areas of progress. First, studies showed that many would fare just as well with only a partial removal of the stomach. Later, researchers found that administering chemotherapy, radiation or both following surgery – an approach called adjuvant therapy – could significantly improve the chances of long-term survival or cure.
For patients with advanced disease, survival remains relatively low and effective new treatments are urgently needed. Through clinical trials, doctors continue to refine chemotherapy regimens in ways that extend patients' lives and significantly delay problems like loss of appetite and weight loss, which can greatly reduce quality of life.
In the United States, about 21,000 people are diagnosed with stomach cancer annually, and 10,000 die of the disease. Worldwide, stomach cancer is much more common, in part because of high rates of infection with the bacterium H. Pylori, which was found in the 1990s to increase the risk of stomach cancer, ulcers and other stomach problems.