Small Intestine Cancer

Small intestine cancer (also known as small bowel cancer) is a rare disease that develops in the tissue of the small intestine. The small bowel is the part of the gastrointestinal tract located just beneath the stomach. Small intestine cancer represents 0.5% of all new cancer cases in the U.S.1


What are the different types of small intestine cancer?

There are several types of small intestine cancer that affect the different cells of this part of the gastrointestinal tract. Read more about the types of small intestine cancer at the American Cancer Society website.

What are some symptoms of small intestine cancer?

Symptoms of small intestine cancer are often vague. Studies show it takes about 6 months before patients begin showing symptom of small intestine cancer. The most common symptoms are:

  • Pain in the abdomen (belly)
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue & weakness
  • Blood in stool
  • Dark/black stools
  • Diarrhea
  • Lump in the abdomen

How is small intestine cancer diagnosed?

Physical exams for small intestine cancer will concentrate on the abdomen to identify any swelling or sounds of the bowel indicating an attempt to overcome a blockage.

Blood tests for small intestine cancer include a complete blood count (CBC) of the red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets and blood chemistry tests.

Imaging tests create pictures of the inside of your body to take a closer look at potential tumors. For small intestine cancer, these tests will include barium X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, and positron emission tomography (PET) scans.

Endoscopic tests are the examination of the small intestine using instruments that are inserted into the anus. Endoscopic instruments typically have lights on the probing end, which allows the doctor to check for abnormalities in the small intestine. Specific endoscopic tests for small intestine cancer include: upper endoscopy, capsule endoscopy, and double-balloon enteroscopy.

Biopsy is the removal of a small portion of a tumor in the small intestine that is microscopically evaluated for the presence of cancer cells. Often, it is the only definite way to diagnose small intestine cancer.

What are the stages of cancer?

The most commonly used staging system for small intestine cancer is that of the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC), sometimes also known as the TNM system.

The TNM system describes 3 key pieces of information:

  • T describes the extent of small intestine cancer spreading through the layers that form its wall.
  • N describes the extent of spread to nearby (regional) lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped collections of immune system cells that are important in fighting infections.
  • M indicates whether the cancer has spread (metastasized) to other organs of the body (Such as the liver, lungs, or distant lymph nodes).

What are the treatments for small intestine cancer?

This small intestine cancer treatment information does not outline the particular treatment(s) a patient will receive. Rather, it provides general information about the typical treatments for this type of cancer.

Surgery is the removal of a cancerous tumor found in the small intestine. It is the preferred option for treating localized small intestine tumors and small intestine cancer that has spread to nearby lymph nodes.

Chemotherapy uses drugs to treat cancer. Typically, chemotherapy is only used to treat small intestine cancer if it has metastasized. Chemotherapy may also be given after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to kill prostate cancer cells. It is typically an option for people who cannot have surgery to remove small intestine tumors.

What are major risk factors of small intestine cancer?

  • Gender: Incidents of small intestine cancer are slightly more frequent in men.
  • Age: The average age at small intestine cancer diagnosis is about 60.
  • Alcohol & Smoking: There is evidence of an increased risk for small intestine cancer being correlated to alcohol consumption and tobacco smoking.
  • Crohn’s disease: Individuals with this disease have a higher risk of small intestine cancer.
  • Celiac disease: People with this disease are at higher risk of developing small intestine cancer.

How is small intestine cancer prevented?

  • Quitting or not starting smoking may reduce the risk for this disease. 
Mikayla D. Williams , BS student, Nursing , The University of Arizona
Michael Principe, MA, Information Resources and Library Science , The University of Arizona
Expert Reviewers: 
Christina Laukaitis, MD, PhD , The University of Arizona
Works Cited: 
National Cancer Institute (2014). SEER Stat Fact Sheets: Small Intestine Cancer.
Works Consulted: 
American Cancer Society (2014). Small Intestine Cancer.
American Society of Clinical Oncology Small Bowel Cancer.
City of Hope (2014). Small Intestine Cancer.