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Gastrointestinal Cancers

We know that suspecting or receiving a diagnosis of gastrointestinal (GI) cancer is scary. Our team of GI cancer experts at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center will be with you every step of the way, from your initial evaluation through survivorship. Patients come to us from across the Southeast because of our expertise in GI cancers.

Our primary focus is on you as a person, not just as a patient. We offer a wide range of treatment options, working with you on a treatment plan that results in the best long-term outcome.

Gastrointestinal Cancers: Why Choose Vanderbilt-Ingram

Symptoms of GI cancer, such as indigestion and stomach pain, can be similar to other, less serious conditions. Dedicated cancer centers like Vanderbilt-Ingram that care for a high volume of patients are experts in making a precise diagnosis, so you can get the treatment you need.

At Vanderbilt-Ingram, you will find:

  • Advanced treatment options: Gastrointestinal cancers range from simple and more easily treated, like early-stage colorectal cancer, to complex, such as advanced pancreatic cancer. We treat all types, providing the care that is right for you.
  • Unique expertise: No two tumors are the same. Our specialists have dedicated their careers to treating patients with GI cancers, so we can offer you effective care, appropriate to your needs. Often, patients seek us for a second opinion on their diagnosis or treatment plan.
  • Specialized care for pancreatic cancer: Pancreatic cancer is a uniquely difficult cancer to treat, because it is often diagnosed when it is at an advanced stage. Our GI cancer team has a depth of expertise and experience in treating this type of cancer. We provide the full range of treatments, including a complex procedure called a Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy), a surgery that involves the pancreas, stomach, small intestine and gallbladder.
  • Collaborative care: Our patients benefit from the expertise of specialists across all areas of cancer care. Our surgeons, oncologists, radiologists and other specialists combine their skill and knowledge to provide you with personalized care. Our panel of experts, called a tumor board, evaluates complex cases and makes treatment recommendations. 

Types of Gastrointestinal Cancers We Treat

We treat the full range of gastrointestinal cancers.

  • Anal
  • Appendix
  • Bile duct (extrahepatic)
  • Carcinoid tumors
  • Colon
  • Esophageal
  • Gallbladder
  • Gastrointestinal sarcoma
  • Hepatobiliary (liver and bile duct)
  • Liver (including intrahepatic bile duct)
  • Pancreatic
  • Rectal
  • Small intestine (small bowel)
  • Stomach (gastric)

Colon Cancer Prevention

We offer comprehensive prevention and screening for colon cancer, including colonoscopy, considered the most effective method in colon cancer detection. If precancerous polyps or early-stage tumors are found during a colonoscopy, doctors can prevent or cure cancer by removing them.

Preventive screenings can help detect cancer in its earlier stages, when treatment is most successful. Talk to your doctor about when you should have a colonoscopy. 

Diagnosing Gastrointestinal Cancers

During your diagnosis, we will perform a thorough physical examination and ask you about your medical history. We encourage you to tell us about your symptoms, no matter how minor they seem. These symptoms provide important details that will help shape your diagnosis.

To confirm a diagnosis, we may order one or more tests:

  • Upper endoscopy, with or without ultrasound: We use sedation to make sure you are comfortable. The doctor examines your esophagus, stomach and part of the small intestine. During an upper endoscopy, we may also remove a small tissue sample (biopsy). Sometimes we use endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) to evaluate the stomach, pancreas, duodenum and liver.
  • Biopsy: Doctors remove small samples of tissue to test. We may perform this procedure during an endoscopy or during a separate, minimally invasive surgical procedure. A biopsy can confirm a diagnosis of cancer. For biopsies, we use either sedation or general anesthesia to ensure your comfort.
  • Imaging: We may use an X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a positron emission tomography (PET) scan to produce detailed images of your body. 
  • Upper GI series: For this procedure, we may ask you to drink a thick mixture of barium and water. The barium highlights any abnormalities in the digestive system so the radiologist can get clear X-ray images of your upper gastrointestinal tract.
  • Lower GI series: A barium enema allows us to use an X-ray to get detailed pictures of your lower gastrointestinal tract. We will give you detailed instructions for preparing for this procedure, which may involve taking a laxative to empty your colon. We can also give you a sedative before the procedure so you will be comfortable.
  • Colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy: We will sedate you for this procedure so you will be comfortable. After the sedation, we insert a small, thin scope into the rectum to view and possibly remove any abnormal tissue or polyps for testing.

Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment

Treatment options include:

  • Surgery: Gastrointestinal tumors may require intricate surgery to safely remove the cancer. Types of surgery include:
    • Laparoscopy: This is a minimally invasive procedure to remove smaller, less complex tumors. Minimally invasive surgeries generally result in shorter recovery times and fewer complications.
    • Resection: A surgeon removes all or part of an organ that contains cancer. Vanderbilt-Ingram’s trusted surgical team regularly performs complex resections with the goal of helping you maintain a high quality of life.
  • Chemotherapy: This treatment method uses powerful medications to destroy the cancer cells. You can receive chemotherapy orally (through the mouth) or intravenously (directly into the vein). We offer chemotherapy services at multiple infusion centers, so you can get care at the location that’s closest to you. 
  • Radiation therapy: During this short, painless procedure, we deliver high-energy rays directly into a tumor. Sometimes we do this treatment using a machine (external radiation therapy). Other times, we place small radioactive “seeds” near the tumor (internal radiation therapy, or brachytherapy). We also offer lutetium Lu 177 dotate therapy, which uses a targeted radiation drug.
  • Regional therapy: For particularly complex tumors in the liver, your team might consider regional therapy that delivers chemotherapy medication directly into the blood supply to the liver. Regional therapy targets only the affected area, so doctors can use a higher dose of medication to destroy the tumor with fewer side effects.
  • Intraperitoneal heated chemotherapy: For certain tumors that have spread into the abdominal cavity, your team might consider heated intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC). We deliver this highly concentrated chemotherapy directly into the abdomen. Because it does not travel through the entire body, you experience fewer side effects.

Gastrointestinal Cancer: Patient Stories

Just before Anne Wolfe faced one of the toughest times in her life, everything fell into place. An unanticipated move to Bowling Green, Kentucky, put her closer to Vanderbilt — and the treatment that saved her life.

Comprehensive Post-Treatment Support

Cancer affects all aspects of your life, and it affects you even after treatments are completed. We offer robust support services – including a survivorship program and an integrative care center – to help you during treatment and in your life after treatment. 


Gastrointestinal Surgeons

Interventional Radiologists

Medical Oncologists

Radiation Oncologist