Small bowel tumors

Tumors of the small intestine are rare. They can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Some originally benign tumors can progress to become malignant. Typically, small bowel tumors go unnoticed for long periods of time. The majority of them are found while examining the bowel for other reasons.

Benign small bowel tumors

Many different kinds of benign tumors can develop in the small intestine.

Leiomyoma
These are tumors that grow in a muscle layer of the intestinal wall, they may cause bleeding and are difficult to diagnose. It is possible for this type of tumor to become malignant.
Adenomas
These are tumors that develop in glandular cells. They often become malignant and can cause blockages in the intestine.
Lipomas
These are typically harmless collections of fat on the wall of the intestine. They cannot become cancerous and only need to be removed if they become very large and cause complications.
Hemangiomas
These are collections of blood vessels that form benign vascular tumors in the wall of the stomach and intestine. They can cause significant bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract and may require treatment.
Neurogenic tumors
These are benign tumors that develop from nerve tissue.

Malignant small bowel tumors

When a tumor is cancerous it is classified as malignant. Small intestine cancer is classified by five different types. The classification depends on the kind of cells the cancer first develops in. The types of cancer found in the small intestine are adenocarcinoma, sarcoma, carcinoid tumors, gastrointestinal stromal tumor and lymphoma. Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of small bowel cancer.

Adenocarcinoma begins in the lining of the small intestine in glandular cells. The tumors that develop from this type of cancer occur in the upper part of the small intestine and may grow to block the intestine.

Risk factors for small intestine cancer

Having a family history of small bowel cancer is the biggest risk factor. Other factors and conditions that may increase your risk of developing small intestine cancer include:

  • Consuming a diet high in fat
  • Having Crohn’s disease
  • Having celiac disease
  • Having inherited syndromes

Having an inherited syndrome can increase your risk for developing small bowel cancer. Genetic tests can determine if you have a hereditary cancer syndrome. If you think an inherited cancer syndrome may be present in your family, talk to your doctor.

Symptoms of small bowel tumors

Signs of small bowel tumors are very similar to signs and symptoms of other gastrointestinal conditions. If you are experiencing symptoms see a health care provider.

  • Abdominal pain/cramping
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Blood in the stool (most often appearing black or tar-like)
  • A lump in the abdomen

Diagnosis

Many of the tumors listed above can be very difficult to specifically diagnose. If you are suffering from symptoms of a small bowel tumor, your doctor may perform a number of tests to determine the cause. These can include:

Endoscopy
A small flexible tube with a camera can be inserted into many areas of your GI tract, including your small intestine. A biopsy also can be done during this exam—where a tissue sample is taken for testing. A biopsy can determine if a tumor is benign or malignant.
Endoscopic ultrasound
This exam can help doctors see and determine where a tumor may be within the bowel wall.
Upper GI series
After consuming a liquid containing barium, a series of x-rays of the esophagus, stomach, and small bowel will be taken. The barium coating helps doctors get a better visual. X-rays can be taken at different times as the barium travels through the gastrointestinal tract.
Additional imaging tests
A CT or MRI can show abnormalities in the GI tract and help rule out other conditions.

Treatment

If a tumor is found in your small bowel, treatment methods can vary greatly. Depending on the type of tumor it is, how serious it is, and whether it is benign or malignant will affect treatment. If a tumor is symptomatic, it will most likely need to be surgically removed.

Treating small bowel cancer

Small bowel cancer is rare compared to stomach or colon cancer. The stages of small bowel cancer are determined by how far it has spread and the areas of the body it has invaded. Most likely a combination treatment of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy will be used.

Last reviewed: 
October 2018

Interested in using our health content?