What is gastrointestinal cancer?

Gastrointestinal cancer is a term for the group of cancers that affect the digestive system that leads from the mouth to the anus. 

On this page you'll find information for the following gastrointestinal cancers:

Oesophageal cancer

The most common type of oesophageal cancer in Australia is called oesophageal adenocarcinoma.   The oesophagus is commonly referred to as the 'food pipe’. This type of cancer develops when cancerous cells begin to grow in one of the tube’s layers.

Small bowel cancer

Small bowel cancer, also referred to as small intestine cancer, is a rare form of cancer that occurs in the cells of the small bowel.

Gallbladder cancer

Gallbladder cancer is another type of rare gastrointestinal cancer. The most common type of gallbladder cancer is adenocarcinoma where abnormal cells grow in the epithelial cells of the gallbladder.

The most common types of gastrointestinal cancers are listed below and each has a dedicated page:

Signs and symptoms of gastrointestinal cancer

If you have noticed a change, book a consultation with your GP as soon as possible. Catching cancer quickly can save your life.

What are the signs and symptoms of gastrointestinal cancer?

The broad range of symptoms you may experience if you have a gastrointestinal cancer are:

  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Trouble swallowing (oesophageal cancer)
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
Gastrointestinal cancer

Notice changes and act quickly

Epworth encourages you consult your doctor as soon as possible if you have noticed any changes to your health.

Diagnosing gastrointestinal cancer

How is gastrointestinal cancer diagnosed?

Epworth provides you with access to several thorough diagnostic tests to further investigate cancer symptoms and to rule out or diagnose conditions.

To investigate your health concerns, your specialist or doctor may schedule one or several of the following tests:

  • Blood test
    Your doctor will likely arrange blood tests to check your overall general health.
  • Medical imaging
    Depending on the type of cancer, you may undergo medical imaging tests such as ultrasounds or computed tomography (CT) scans. These images can support your care team to determine whether cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
  • Biopsy
    Your doctor may arrange for you to undergo a biopsy. During this procedure, a small amount of tissue is removed and examined by a pathologist.


An endoscopy is the most common diagnostic test for oesophageal cancer. A thin tube with a camera at the end, known as an endoscope, will be inserted down the throat to look at your digestive tract for signs of cancer.


Similar to an endoscopy, a laparoscope is a thin tubed instrument with a camera at the end of it. However, a laparoscope is inserted through a small incision typically above the belly button.  A laparoscopy will be administered under a general anaesthetic.

Staging - Investigating the extent of the cancer

Your Epworth specialist will likely recommend further testing to understand whether cancer has spread. These tests will allow your care team to establish your cancer as stage 1 to 4. Staging helps your care team and specialists to create a unique treatment plan.

What does my cancer stage mean?

Stage 1

Early cancer where the tumour is relatively small and the cancer has not yet spread to other tissue.

Stage 2

Cancerous tumours remains relatively localised but has spread to nearby tissue beyond its origin.

Stage 3

Cancer has spread regionally and affected surrounding tissue, and may have grown.

Stage 4

Sometimes called advanced cancer, stage 4 means cancer has spread to other tissue or organs beyond the region where it originated.

Gastrointestinal cancer

See an Epworth Specialist

To receive treatment from an Epworth specialist, the first step is to schedule an appointment with your GP and request a referral.

Treatment for gastrointestinal cancer

We understand that treatment options can be overwhelming. Epworth specialists are here to guide and support you to make the best choice for your cancer care journey.

Gastrointestinal cancer treatment

Your treatment plan will be tailored to your specific stage and type of gastrointestinal cancer. Below is an overview of common gastrointestinal cancer treatments:

  • Chemotherapy
    Chemotherapy for gastrointestinal cancer involves the use of anti-cancer drugs to attack cancer cells. Depending on your type and stage of cancer, chemotherapy can be used as a standalone treatment, or used before or alongside other treatments such as radiotherapy or surgery.
  • Radiotherapy
    Radiotherapy is the use of radiation to treat and manage gastrointestinal cancer. Supported by the latest world-class technology and evidence-based techniques, a highly experienced team of radiation oncologists, radiation therapists, physicists and nurses are committed to providing compassionate, exceptional care for patients and their loved ones.
  • Surgery
    Surgery for gastrointestinal cancer is one of the most common treatments and your type of surgery will vary depending on your overall general health, stage, and location of cancer.

Why choose Epworth for cancer care?

Epworth HealthCare is Victoria's largest not-for-profit private hospital group, renowned for excellence in diagnosis, treatment, care and rehabilitation. Epworth is an innovator in Australia’s health system, embracing the latest in evidence-based medicine to pioneer treatments and services for our patients.

Supported by excellent facilities, we integrate clinical practice with education and research to deliver outstanding patient care, each and every day.

Treatment locations

Epworth cancer care locations

Epworth offers comprehensive cancer services at all four major hospitals: Epworth Eastern, Epworth Freemasons, Epworth Geelong and Epworth Richmond. This includes specialist wards, day oncology facilities, radiation oncology and palliative care.
Gastrointestinal cancer

Epworth Rehabilitation

If you've recently been diagnosed with cancer or are already in your cancer treatment journey, we highly recommend that you participate in our holistic oncology rehabilitation program. Epworth offers patients programs to support their wellbeing before, during and after treatment. We believe this approach allows our patients to feel best prepared for treatment or feel more like themselves following surgery or other medical interventions.

Gastrointestinal cancer rehabilitation

Rehabilitation doesn't just start after your treatment has ended. You may benefit from our holistic rehabilitation programs at any time throughout your cancer journey. Our programs support you to physically and emotionally prepare for treatment or restore your strength and wellbeing.

Who is the program for?

Our cancer rehabilitation program is designed for anyone diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer at any time from diagnosis to treatment and recovery.

Rehabilitation doesn't start after your treatment has ended. You may benefit from our holistic rehabilitation programs at any time throughout your cancer journey. Our programs can support you to physically and emotionally prepare for treatment and restore your strength and wellbeing.

What does the cancer rehabilitation program involve?

Before you start

You will meet a rehabilitation doctor and allied health team for a medical, psychosocial, and physical assessment.

Everyone's cancer care journey is different. The assessments will help the team understand your specific needs to develop the right program for you. You will work with the team to develop goals to work towards throughout the program.

During the program

Depending on your assessment and individual needs, you may complete your program:

  • as part of a group, with other people, who have been diagnosed with varying cancers
  • on your own

Most people will attend as an outpatient, coming to hospital for a few hours once or twice a week, over several weeks. Some people may need to stay overnight in hospital and complete a program over several consecutive days.

Either way, you will receive the same support from our team to address your physical, functional and emotional needs.

Your program may include:

  • A physical exercise component to help restore movement, strength and fitness
  • An educational component where you will learn about different areas associated with your cancer diagnosis and treatment and how to manage them, including:
    • fatigue
    • pain
    • emotional wellbeing
    • body image and self-esteem
    • work or family challenges
    • relationships
    • late-onset of side effects.

At the end of your program

Our rehabilitation team will keep in touch with your referring doctor and/or treating team throughout the program and our team will keep them informed about your progress.

They will also connect you to local services and support networks so you can leave our program with the strength and confidence to live life to your fullest potential.

Who will support me during the rehabilitation program?

Depending on your needs, you may see some or all of our multidisciplinary team which includes:

  • Rehabilitation specialist doctor
  • Cancer nurse 
  • Exercise physiologist
  • Physiotherapist
  • Psychologist
  • Social worker
  • Occupational therapist
  • Dietitian.

How can I access a rehabilitation program?


A referral from your specialist or GP is required to participate.

Ask your doctor to complete the referral form at www.epworth.org.au/rehab and return it to us via fax: 03 9982 6696 or email: [email protected]


Group programs are located at Epworth Camberwell and Epworth Hawthorn.

Individual programs can be accessed at Epworth Brighton, Epworth Camberwell, Epworth Geelong, Epworth Hawthorn or Epworth Richmond Rehabilitation.

Contact us

If you have any questions about our cancer rehabilitation programs, call us on: 1300 345 600.

Life after cancer treatment

Life after cancer treatment can pose its own challenges but our Epworth specialists are here to support you.

Life after treatment

Life after gastrointestinal cancer treatment can be a mixture of emotions. You may not 'bounce back' as quickly as you like, but be kind to yourself and start making plans with your family or carers.

Remember that:

  • You may still feel fatigued for a while after finishing treatment.
  • If required, make an advanced care plan.
  • Ask for help. If your body has changed due to treatment, remember help is out there to support you to feel your best and regain your sense of identity and self-esteem. Speak with your care team about options to support your general wellbeing after treatment.

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