What is a GIST tumor?

GIST stands for Gastrointestinal stromal tumor, which is a type of cancer that starts in special cells in the wall of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, also known as the digestive tract.

Gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GISTs) are uncommon tumors of the GI tract. These tumors start in very early forms of special cells in the wall of the GI tract called the interstitial cells of Cajal (ICCs). ICCs are cells of the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that regulates body processes such as digesting food. ICCs are sometimes called the “pacemakers” of the GI tract because they signal the muscles in the GI tract to contract to move food and liquid along.

More than half of GISTs start in the stomach. Most of the others start in the small intestine, but GISTs can start anywhere along the GI tract. A small number of GISTs start outside the GI tract in nearby areas such as the omentum (an apron-like layer of fatty tissue that hangs over the organs in the abdomen) or the peritoneum (the layer of tissue that lines the organs and walls of the abdomen).

Some GISTs seem to be much more likely to grow into other areas or spread to other parts of the body than others. Doctors look at certain factors to help tell whether a GIST is likely to grow and spread quickly, such as how large the tumor is, where it’s located in the GI tract, and how fast the tumor cells are dividing (its mitotic rate, described in Tests for Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors).

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