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Small intestine cancer develops in the small bowel, a coiled, tube-like structure that transports food from the stomach to the large intestine during the digestive process. As the largest component of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, the small intestine receives food from the stomach, breaks down the food to facilitate the absorption of nutrients and then passes the waste into the large intestine, where it is eliminated from the body in the form of stool.

The most common type of small intestine cancer is adenocarcinoma, which arises in the glandular cells that line the inner walls of the small bowel. Most adenocarcinomas form in the first part of the small intestine just beyond the stomach (duodenum). A common symptom is abdominal pain that worsens after eating. A large duodenal tumor can interfere with the passage of food or create a GI blockage.

Patient with small intestine cancer risk factor speaks with nurse

What causes small intestine cancer?

Like many types of cancer, small intestine cancer begins with a cellular DNA mutation that accelerates cell growth and proliferation. Abnormal cells then build up, bind together and form tumors.

Scientists do not yet fully understand the precise mechanisms behind the genetic changes that lead to small intestine cancer. Because it is frequently diagnosed in older adults, some experts believe degeneration that occurs along with the natural aging process may play a role in its development.

What are the risk factors for small intestine cancer?

Risk factors characteristics, behaviors and exposures that can increase the risk of—but do not directly cause—small intestine cancer. Some risk factors can be controlled, but others cannot.

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Small intestine cancer risk factors that can be controlled

By making healthy lifestyle changes, it may be possible to control certain small intestine cancer risk factors, such as:

  • Poor nutrition – A diet high in red meat and smoked, cured or fatty foods can increase the risk of cancer, while a high-fiber diet may have a protective effect.
  • Colorectal polyps – If left untreated, benign polyps can gradually become cancerous, which underscores the importance of routine colorectal cancer screenings.
  • Tobacco and alcohol use – Smoking and excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages are known risk factors for many types of cancer, including small intestine cancer.

Small intestine cancer risk factors that cannot be controlled

Certain small intestine cancer risk factors cannot be controlled, such as:

  • Certain medical conditions – Small intestine cancer has been linked to chronic bowel inflammation, which often occurs with Crohn’s disease and celiac disease.
  • Inherited cancer predisposition syndromes – Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), Lynch syndrome, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome and MUTYH-associated polyposis (MAP) are associated with small intestine cancer.
  • Family history – Individuals with a close family member who was diagnosed with small intestine cancer or colorectal cancer are at heightened risk.

Can small intestine cancer be prevented?

Preventing small intestine cancer can be challenging due to its relatively unknown causes and rarity. However, certain preventive strategies focused on controlling the known risk factors and enhancing overall health can help reduce the risk.

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

Moffitt is proud to lead the way in small intestine cancer research, and our scientists and clinicians are working continually to learn more about its causes and risk factors. In recognition of our progress to date, Moffitt has earned a Comprehensive Cancer Center designation from the National Cancer Institute. We offer the latest treatment options for small intestine cancer, including a robust portfolio of clinical trials.

If you would like to learn more about small intestine cancer causes and risk factors, you can request an appointment with a specialist in our renowned Gastrointestinal Oncology Program by calling 1-888-663-3488 or submitting a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.