New test for stomach cancer

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It has recently been reported in the news that "A quick and simple breath test can diagnose stomach cancer," saying it "could revolutionise and speed up the way this cancer is diagnosed".

Medical Mistakes

About 7,000 people in the UK develop stomach cancer each year. Long delays in the diagnosis of patients with cancer of the stomach or oesophagus; mean that two-fifths of patients survive for at least a year, but only a fifth are still alive after 5 years, despite treatment.

Currently stomach cancer is diagnosed by taking a biopsy of the stomach lining where a tube is placed down the throat and into the stomach (endoscopy) which is time consuming, expensive and also has its own inherent risks of damage to the oesophagus and stomach.

Possible complications of an endoscopy include:
  • an infection in the part of the body the endoscope is used to examine. An infection can usually be treated with antibiotics
  • piercing or tearing (perforation) of an organ which may require surgical repair
  • excessive bleeding

A breath test would speed up the diagnosis process and it is non-invasive. It would be very easy to use in a primary care setting and could mean that a diagnosis is made at a much earlier stage in the disease process.

It is more likely that a breath test would be used as a screening tool for people with stomach problems and if the test was "positive" then further investigation would still be needed by way of endoscopy – a breath test would not do away with the need for an endoscopy.

Current studies have found that whilst there is a delay in people consulting their doctor with symptoms there is a higher percentage of doctors delaying referral to the hospital for investigation, which is then compounded by a delay in being seen at hospital, which in turn impacts upon establishing the diagnosis.

It is sometimes the case that a doctor or other healthcare professional may fail to appreciate, or identify, that there is a risk of stomach or oesophageal cancer and wrongly conclude that no specific treatment is required.

This delay may be as a result of substandard care and may be the difference between a 1 year survival rate and a 5 year survival rate, or cure.

So although this is a step in the right direction, this is based on a small Chinese pilot in which researchers tested the breath of 130 people with stomach complaints, some of who had confirmed stomach cancer, and some who had confirmed non-cancerous conditions, such as stomach ulcers.

What has caused excitement is that the pilot found that the test was 90% accurate for identifying who did and who did not have stomach cancer. It also had similarly high accuracy for correctly identifying the cancer at early or late stage.

This is very much in the preliminary stages and a much wider, global study is required, but this could revolutionise the way stomach cancer is diagnosed and speed up treatment resulting in much higher survival rates.

This article was written by Helen Donaghy, Medical Negligence Solicitor.

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