About Small Intestine Cancer

About Small Intestine Cancer

At Penn Medicine, patients with small intestine cancer receive their care from a multidisciplinary team of nationally recognized experts in the diagnosis, treatment and research of gastrointestinal cancer.

Also known as the small bowel, the small intestine is the portion of the digestive tract that connects the stomach with the large bowl, or colon. The small intestine is critical in the breakdown and absorption of food so the body can absorb nutrients.

The small intestine can be divided into three areas:

  • Duodenum
  • Jejunum
  • Ileum

Cancer of the small intestine is rare. There are five main types of intestinal cancer, differentiated by their appearance under a microscope:

  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumor
  • Carciniod tumors
  • Lymphoma
  • Sarcoma
    • Leiomyosarcoma

Penn Medicine's multidisciplinary approach to cancer diagnosis and treatment provides better outcomes and gives patients access to the most advanced treatment, surgical techniques and clinical trials.

Because navigating a cancer diagnosis and treatment options can be difficult, patients who wish to connect with a cancer specialist at Penn Medicine can speak with a cancer nurse, who can help them make an appointment with the right physician.

To connect with a cancer nurse at Penn Medicine, patients should call 800-789-PENN.

Small Intestine Cancer Risk and Prevention

Some risk factors for cancer, like age and family history, cannot be prevented. Patients who feel they are at risk may benefit from consulting with a risk assessment specialist within one of Penn Medicine’s programs at the Abramson Cancer Center or the Abramson Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital at Pennsylvania Hospital.

Intestinal Cancer Risk Factors

There are different kinds of risk factors for small intestine cancer.

  • Gastrointestinal syndromes. Having Lynch syndrome or familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) increases the risk of intestinal cancer.
  • Smoking. Smoking has been linked to an increased risk of developing small intestine cancer.
  • A high-fat diet. Studies show that people whose diets are high in fat may be at an increased risk for developing intestinal cancer.
  • Crohn’s disease. People with this condition in which the gastrointestinal tract is inflamed over a long period of time are at higher risk of developing intestinal cancer.
  • Celiac disease. This digestive disease in which the body has an immune response to a protein called gluten can lead to an increased risk for small intestine cancer as well as small bowel lymphomas.

Small Intestine Cancer Prevention

Most risk factors for intestinal cancer cannot be prevented. However, there are preventive measures people can take to decrease the risk of developing cancer.

Small Intestine Cancer Risk Assessment

Penn Medicine offers programs for patients who want to determine their risk of developing gastrointestinal cancer through:

These programs offer knowledge about the presence of genetic risk factors for cancer and provide patients with important, sometimes life-saving options.

Types of Small Intestine Cancer

  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumor
  • Carcinoid tumors
  • Lymphoma
  • Sarcoma
    • Leiomyosarcoma


The most common type of intestinal cancer, adenocarcinoma, begins in the lining of the small intestine and usually develops in the duodenum.

Gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST)

Carcinoid tumors

Also known as neuroendocrine tumors, these tumors are slow growing and usually occur in the ileum.


Lymphoma is cancer that starts in the lymph tissue of the small bowel and usually occurs in the jejunum. Lymphomas are typically non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but they can also be Hodgkin’s lymphomas. Occasionally, T-cell lymphomas can develop with long-standing celiac disease.


Sarcomas in the small intestine begin in the muscle wall and usually occur in the ileum.


The most common subtype of sarcoma in the small intestine.

Small Intestine Cancer Symptoms

Because intestinal cancer is so rare, it can be difficult to diagnose. Its symptoms are usually nonspecific:

  • Crampy abdominal pain
  • Blood mixed in the stools
  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Dark/tarry/black stools 
  • Weight loss without trying
  • Diarrhea
  • Jaundice, or a yellowish tint to the skin and whites of eyes.

While these symptoms could be caused by a number of medical conditions, if symptoms such as these are severe, worsening, or persistent, medical attention should be sought so that a timely and accurate diagnosis can be made. Anytime blood is seen in the stool or the stool is black, medical attention should be sought.

Staging Small Intestine Cancer

Staging systems provide doctors with a common language for describing tumors. After cancer is first diagnosed, a series of tests are used to investigate the extent of the cancer and to see whether it has spread to other parts of the body from where it started. Staging is a way of recording the size and growth of a cancer, and determining the plan for treatment. By understanding the stage of their cancer, patients can make informed decisions about treatment.

The “staging diagnosis” depends on the type of cancer and the staging system the doctor is using, but in general there are four stages of intestinal cancer:

  • Stage I. Cancer contained within the small bowel lining or spread into the muscle wall, but not yet involving the lymph nodes or other parts of the body
  • Stage II. Cancer spread through the muscle wall, possibly involving other nearby organs (such as the pancreas)
  • Stage III. Cancer spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV. The cancer has spread (metastasized) from where it started to other organs, such as the liver, bones or lungs.

Small Intestine Cancer Treatment at Penn

After being diagnosed with small intestine cancer, patients at the Abramson Cancer Center may be evaluated through the Gastrointestinal Cancer Evaluation Center (GICEC). The center provides patients with expert support and evaluation to discuss treatment options and individualized treatment plans.

ADAM Images


Patients with small intestine cancer are treated by a multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists who see more patients with gastrointestinal (GI) cancers in one year than many doctors see in their careers.

The physicians of Penn Medicine's GI cancer program are nationally recognized for their expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Penn’s GI cancer treatment team includes:

  • Nationally recognized medical experts with years of experience in diagnosing and treating GI cancer.
  • Nurses with advanced training and experience in treating patients with gastrointestinal cancer.
  • Oncology Navigation Specialists to help patients navigate the health system.
  • Registered dietitians to provide nutrition counseling.
  • Cancer counselors to provide individual or family counseling for issues many cancer patients face.
  • Rehabilitation therapists who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of physical effects from cancer and its treatment.

Penn’s GI cancer program is also supported by a robust research program with immediate translation from bench to bedside.

Many treatment options including standard treatments and clinical trials are available for those with small intestine cancer.

A clinical trial is a study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information about new treatments.  Patients at Penn Medicine can benefit from participating in clinical trials that take place at Penn. Patients interested in learning more about clinical trials should speak with someone on their treatment team.

Oncology Navigation Specialists

Every step of cancer treatment; from a cancer diagnosis, to surgery and treatment to forming a survivorship plan; comes with different needs and issues that should be addressed.

Oncology Navigation Specialists at the Abramson Cancer Center are available to make a patient’s experience as seamless as possible. As experts in navigating complex health care situations, patient support specialists serve as a consistent point of contact and a reliable source for advice, support and direction for patients and families. They can help in a variety of ways including; provide emotional support, identify resources, and ensure access to information, support services, educational programs and community resources.

Learn more about Patient Navigation specialists at the Abramson Cancer Center.

Diagnosing Small Intestine Cancer

An accurate cancer diagnosis from trusted cancer specialists is the first step in getting personalized treatment options to treat small intestine cancer.

Patients who choose Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, benefit from a multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists including gastroenterologists, radiologists, pathologists and surgeons who work together to provide a diagnosis and treatment plan custom designed for each patient with small intestine cancer.

Cancer specialists at Penn Medicine are highly experienced in using the most advanced techniques for diagnosing small intestine cancer and are actively researching better and more precise ways to detect small intestine cancer.

Because an accurate diagnosis is a critical step in planning cancer treatment, it’s important patients know that when they come to Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, they are taking an important step in getting the best cancer treatment.

Navigating a cancer diagnosis and treatment options can be difficult, patients who wish to connect with a cancer specialist at Penn Medicine can speak with a cancer nurse, who can help them make an appointment with the right person. Penn Medicine’s contact center has experienced cancer nurses available and ready to guide patients in finding the cancer specialist right for them.

To connect with a cancer nurse at Penn Medicine, patients should call 800-789-PENN.

Read more Diagnosing Small Intestine Cancer

Small Intestine Cancer Treatments

Following the diagnosis and staging of small intestine cancer, cancer specialists at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center develop a personalized treatment plan. Penn’s treatment options for small intestine cancer include:

  • Surgery
    • Resection
    • Surgical bypass
  • Radiation therapy
    • 3-D conformal radiation therapy
    • Intensity-modulated radiation treatment (IMRT)
    • Proton therapy
    • Volumetric-modulated arc therapy (VMAT)
  • Chemotherapy
    • Chemotherapy
  • Other treatments
    • Integrative medicine and wellness
    • Palliative care
    • Penn Home Care and Hospice

Because navigating a cancer diagnosis and treatment options can be difficult, patients who wish to connect with a cancer specialist at Penn Medicine can speak with a cancer nurse, who can help them make an appointment with the right physician.

To connect with a cancer nurse at Penn Medicine, patients should call 800-789-PENN.

Read more Small Intestine Cancer Treatments

Small Intestine Cancer Survivorship

Survivorship programs at Penn Medicine are a distinct phase of intestinal cancer care and are designed to help patients' transition from their cancer treatment routine to a post-cancer care lifestyle. There are more than 12 million cancer survivors living and thriving today as a result of advances in cancer treatment. However, cancer treatments can result in physical, emotional and financial complications long after the therapy is complete.

Read more Small Intestine Cancer Survivorship

Stand Up to Cancer

Peter O'Dwyer, MD, professor of Hematology-Oncology and program director of Development Therapeutics in the Abramson Cancer Center, was interviewed on NBC10's 10! Show about Penn's work as part of the Stand Up to Cancer Dream Team... Read more

Clinical Trials