Learn about this type of cancer that usually happens in the stomach or small intestine. Treatments often include surgery and targeted therapy.
A gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) is a type of cancer that begins in the digestive system. GISTs happen most often in the stomach and small intestine.
A GIST is a growth of cells that's thought to form from a special type of nerve cells. These special nerve cells are in the walls of the digestive organs. They play a part in the process that moves food through the body.
Small GISTs may cause no symptoms, and they may grow so slowly that they don't cause problems at first. As a GIST grows, it can cause signs and symptoms. They might include:
GISTs can happen in people at any age, but they are most common in adults and very rare in children. The cause of most GISTs isn't known. A small number are caused by genes passed from parents to children.
To diagnose a GIST, your health care provider might start by asking you about your symptoms and your health. Your provider may also check for a growth in your abdomen.
If symptoms suggest that you may have a GIST, you might need other tests to find the tumor. These tests may include:
Fine-needle aspiration biopsy. This test collects a small sample of tissue from the tumor so it can be tested in a lab. This test is like EUS, but with a thin, hollow needle on the tip of the endoscope. The EUS finds the tumor. The needle collects small amounts of tissue for the lab tests.
Sometimes the needle can't get enough cells, or the results aren't clear. You might need surgery to collect the sample.
GIST treatment often involves surgery and targeted therapy. Which treatments are best for you depends on your situation.
Some GISTs don't need treatment right away. Very small GISTs that don't cause symptoms might not need treatment. Instead, you might have tests to see if the cancer grows. If your GIST grows, you can start treatment.
The goal of surgery is to remove all the GIST. It's often the first treatment for GISTs that haven't spread to other parts of the body.
Surgery might not be used if your tumor grows very large or if it grows into nearby structures. If this happens, your first treatment might be targeted drug therapy to shrink the tumor. You might have surgery later.
The type of operation you have depends on your cancer. Often surgeons can access the GIST using minimally invasive surgery. This means surgical tools go through small cuts in the abdomen rather than through one large cut.
Targeted drug treatments focus on specific chemicals present within cancer cells. By blocking these chemicals, targeted drug treatments can cause cancer cells to die. For GISTs, the target of these drugs is an enzyme called tyrosine kinase that helps cancer cells grow.
Targeted drug therapy for GISTs often begins with imatinib (Gleevec). Targeted drug treatments can be given:
Other targeted drugs might be used if imatinib doesn't work for you or if it stops working. Targeted drug therapy is an active area of cancer research, and new drugs are likely to become options in the future.