What Is a Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor?

November 12, 2012

What Is a Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor?

5,000 to 10,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with a gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST.) Most people have never heard of a gastrointestinal stromal tumor. This is because it was only discovered in the 1990s. Before that, GIST was thought to be a variation of stomach or liver cancer. Now that it is possible to diagnose GIST as opposed to other types of cancer, specific drugs can be used to treat this cancer.

GIST is most frequently found in the connective tissues of the stomach, but sometimes they grow in the intestines, the liver, the colon, the esophagus, the rectum or elsewhere in the abdomen. GIST tumors are classified by size – small or large. Large gastrointestinal stromal tumors can grow so large that a noticeable bulge or bump appears under the skin of the abdomen.


The most common symptoms of a gastrointestinal stromal tumor are:

  • Problems swallowing

  • Pains in the abdomen

  • Passing blood in the stool, caused by bleeding inside the gastrointestinal tract. Stool may look like black tar.

  • Vomiting up red or brown blood

  • Feeling exhausted all of the time

  • Strange growths in the liver.

Less common symptoms of gastrointestinal stromal tumors include:

  • Strange bulge in the abdomen which may or may not be painful

  • Loss of appetite

  • Needing to eat less and less food in order to feel full

  • Chronic nausea

  • Weight loss due to not wanting to eat.

Suspected Cause

For the most part, any type of cancer appears mysteriously. According to the American Cancer Society, GIST tumors may prove to be the exception. The latest theory is that GIST tumors are caused by a faulty gene. But not all children of parents with a faulty gene will develop GIST tumors. Some patients with GIST tumors have no other relatives with GIST tumors, suggesting that the DNA of cells may mutate either spontaneously or as a result of exposure to certain chemicals like asbestos.

GIST tumors seem to derive from pacemaker cells. These are cells that help the intestinal tract move food along. Although classified as a sarcoma, GIST tumors need to be treated differently than other sarcomas.


A patient suspected of having one or more GIST tumors must undergo a variety of diagnostic tests to rule out other health problems, such as a birth defect. If possible, a biopsy of the tumor is taken to determine if the growth is malignant (cancerous.)

The patient then undergoes radiation treatments to shrink the tumor and to keep cancer cells from spreading to other body parts. When the tumor is small enough, it is surgically removed. Very rarely, tumors will grow large enough to stop all digestion, which requires emergency surgery to save the patient’s life.

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