What is appendix cancer?
Appendix cancer occurs when healthy cells in the appendix mutate and grow abnormally, forming a growth or tumour. It is also known as appendiceal cancer.
The appendix is a small pouch attached to the large intestine, located in the lower right part of the abdomen. While its function has yet to be confirmed, it is believed to play a role in maintaining gut health and supporting the immune system.
Appendix cancer is a very rare type of cancer. It is more common among women and those above 50 years of age.
Types of appendix tumours
There are several types of tumours that can develop in the appendix. Some tumours are non-cancerous (benign), while others may be cancerous (malignant) and spread to other parts of the body.
Appendix cancers can be classified into the following types:
- Carcinoid tumours (or neuroendocrine tumours) are the most common, accounting for around half of all diagnosed appendix cancers. These tumours typically grow very slowly at the tip of the appendix and cause no symptoms. As such, the cancer may go undetected for years.
- Adenocarcinomas grow from cells that line the inside of the appendix and comprise several subtypes:
- Mucinous adenocarcinoma produces a jelly-like substance known as mucin, which is released when the tumour ruptures. This is the second most common type of appendix cancer.
- Colonic-type adenocarcinoma develops near the base of the appendix. It is similar to colorectal cancer and causes many of the same symptoms.
- Signet ring cell adenocarcinoma is a rare but aggressive type of tumour that is difficult to treat at an advanced stage. It can cause acute abdominal pain similar to that of appendicitis.
- Goblet cell carcinomas have characteristics of both carcinoid tumours and adenocarcinomas. They are treated similarly to adenocarcinomas.
What are the symptoms of appendix cancer?
Appendix cancer usually causes no symptoms in the early stages. When symptoms are present, they can vary from person to person, with the most common symptoms being:
- Discomfort or pain in the abdomen, stomach or pelvic area
Other symptoms include:
- Appendicitis (inflammation or infection of the appendix)
- Build-up of fluid in the abdomen
- Changes in bowel function, such as constipation or diarrhoea
- Nausea and vomiting
What causes appendix cancer?
The exact cause of appendix cancer is unknown. However, there are certain risk factors that have been associated with appendix cancer.
What are the risk factors for appendix cancer?
Your risk of developing appendix cancer increases if you:
- Smoke or use tobacco products, which also increases your risk for most types of cancer
- Have a family history of appendix cancer or multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1 (MEN1), a hereditary disorder that affects the hormone-producing glands
- Have certain medical conditions, such as pernicious anaemia, atrophic gastritis (chronic inflammation of the stomach lining), and Zollinger-Ellison syndrome (which causes overproduction of gastric acid)
- Are older, as appendix cancer occurs more commonly in those above 50 years old
- Are female (carcinoid tumours of the appendix are more common in females)
How do you prevent appendix cancer?
There is no known way to prevent appendix cancer. However, making healthy lifestyle choices – such as avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption, getting regular exercise, and consuming a wholesome diet – can help to lower your overall risk for cancer.