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Can Abdominal Pain Signal Cancer?

  • Figuring out the source of pain can be difficult. However, it can be particularly tricky when your abdomen hurts, mainly because the abdomen contains a variety of organs that may be triggering the pain.

    “Abdominal pain can indicate all sorts of things,” said Andrea Porpiglia, MD, MSc, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

    Finding relief is important, of course; but locating the cause of the pain is essential. Abdominal pain can signal serious problems. Identifying and treating these issues can prevent future pain and complex illness.

    Why your abdomen may hurt

    Discomfort in the abdomen can have many causes. Digestive, urinary, and reproductive organs all reside in the abdomen, and issues with organs in the chest or genitals can also contribute to abdominal pain.

    Possible causes of abdominal pain include:

    • Appendicitis: an inflammation of the appendix
    • Diverticulitis: an infection in the intestine
    • Gallstones: stones that form in the gallbladder
    • Abscess: a collection of pus
    • Kidney stones: stones that form in the kidneys
    • Bowel perforation: a hole in the wall of the bowel
    • Perforated ulcer: a hole in the wall of the intestine or stomach
    • Pancreatitis: inflammation of the pancreas
    • Ruptured ovarian cyst: cyst on the ovary that breaks open
    • Ectopic pregnancy: pregnancy that develops outside the uterus

    Abdominal pain can also indicate cancer. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to pain in the abdominal area.

    When to see a doctor for abdominal pain

    “If it’s constant, getting worse, or does not improve when you eat, that’s when you should get it checked out,” Porpiglia said.

    If you continue to vomit, stop having bowel function, or have a fever, these are also signs you should see a doctor. The best place to start is with your primary care physician or a gastroenterologist.

    If the pain is sudden, is severe, or doesn’t get better within 30 minutes, get emergency care.

    What to expect at your appointment

    No matter where you seek care, the provider will ask many questions to help pinpoint the cause of your pain.

    “We always take a very detailed history because every pain is different,” Porpiglia said. “Where is the pain in the abdomen? How long have you had it? Is it associated with other problems? For example, with urinary infection, you’ll have pain when you urinate. We ask different questions to try and isolate the problem.”

    A variety of tests can help determine what’s causing your discomfort. These can include blood and urine tests, X-rays, and imaging tests such as a CT scan or ultrasound.

    Once your care team determines what is triggering your pain, they can address it properly. Treatment can include intravenous fluids, pain medication, or antibiotics. Depending on the diagnosis, other medications or surgery may be necessary.

    Not all abdominal pain is a symptom of a serious issue like cancer, but it’s still best to get it checked out. You don’t have to live in pain. And, if the discomfort is tied to a significant disease, addressing it now can help prevent problems in the future.

    Learn more about gastroenterology at Fox Chase Cancer Center.