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Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor (GIST)

Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) are rare tumors of the gastrointestinal tract. They develop in the cells of your autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that regulates body processes such as food digestion. Roughly 60 percent of all GISTs develop in the stomach, while around 30 percent arise in the small intestine. The rest can be found in the esophagus, colon and rectum. GISTs can be benign (non-cancerous) at first, but many turn into cancer. When this happens, they are called sarcomas. Surgery is the usual treatment if the tumor has not spread.

Surgeons specializing in gastrointestinal stromal tumors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) are the surgical team for the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, a unique center uniting the world’s best gastrointestinal cancer experts. Our board certified surgeons are leaders in minimally invasive surgery, performing laparoscopic techniques in combination with targeted drug therapy.

Learn more about gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST).

Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor (GIST) Topics

Risk Factors for Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor (GIST)

Factors that contribute to an increased risk for GIST include:

Source: American Cancer Society

Symptoms of Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor (GIST)

Gastrointestinal stromal tumors may cause symptoms that are also indicative of other conditions:

  • Abdominal discomfort or pain
  • Vomiting
  • Blood in stools or vomit
  • Fatigue due to anemia
  • Feeling full after eating only a small amount
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss
Diagnosis of Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor (GIST)

Sometimes gastrointestinal stromal tumors are found by chance or seen on an exam for another problem. If you are having symptoms of GIST, your surgeon will ask about your health history, your family’s history of cancer and risk factors. Diagnostic tests may include:

Learn more about diagnostic tests for GIST.

Stages of Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor (GIST)

After a gastrointestinal stromal tumor has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body. This process is called staging.

Learn more about the stages of gastrointestinal stromal tumors.

Treatment for Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor (GIST)

Surgical Treatment

Surgery is the main treatment for a gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) that has not spread. Surgeons at BWH are internationally recognized specialists who are faculty at Harvard Medical School. They have years of experience in GIST surgery and have perfected many of the most progressive surgical procedures including:

  • Laparoscopic surgery for small GISTS. Your surgeon makes several small incisions and inserts a thin lighted tube (with a tiny video camera) called a laparoscope through one. He or she then uses long, thin surgical tools to remove the tumor through the other incisions.
  • If the tumor is large or growing into other organs, your surgeon could still remove it entirely. He or she might have to remove parts of organs (such as sections of the intestines) and GISTs that have spread elsewhere in the abdomen, such as the liver.

Non-Surgical Treatment

  • Targeted therapy drugs
    • Gleevec (imatinib) is used for patients with advanced-stage GIST, and may help patients with earlier-stage tumors, either before or after surgery.
    • Sutent (sunitinib) targets the KIT and PDGFRA proteins.
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
What You Should Expect

You will receive a thorough diagnostic examination to evaluate if you have gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST) and determine what course of treatment is needed. Careful monitoring and the involvement of an experienced surgeon are important to the successful outcome for patients with GIST.

If you are having surgery or a procedure, you will likely be scheduled for a visit to the Weiner Center for Preoperative Evaluation for pre-operative information and tests.

The day of surgery, you will be cared for in the operating room by surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses who specialize in surgery for patients with GIST. After surgery, you will recover in the post-surgical care unit where you will receive comprehensive care by an experienced surgical and nursing staff.

Learn more about your hospital stay and returning home.

Multidisciplinary Care

The Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center provides the world’s most advanced and innovative multidisciplinary care for patients with gastrointestinal diseases, such as GIST. Our treatment team includes colon and rectal surgeons, medical and radiation oncologists, nutritionists, pathologists, anesthesiologists and gastroenterologists. In addition, patients have full access to BWH’s world-renowned academic medical community with its diverse specialists and state-of-the-art facilities.

GIST Surgery Appointments and Locations

Contact one of our GIST cancer surgeons in the list at the top of the page to make an appointment.

GIST Cancer Surgery Locations


Learn more about gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) in our health library.

Visit the Kessler Health Education Library in the Bretholtz Center for Patients and Families to access computers and knowledgeable staff.

Visit the Weiner Center for Preoperative Evaluation.

Access a complete directory of patient and family services.


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