STEP 3: Diagnosis, staging and treatment planning

Step 3 outlines the process for confirming the diagnosis and stage of cancer and for planning subsequent treatment. The guiding principle is that interaction between appropriate multidisciplinary team members should determine the treatment plan.

Biopsy material from the diagnostic endoscopy in patients with oesophagogastric cancer should be reviewed by an experienced histopathologist (Smyth et al. 2016).

Biopsy material from the diagnostic endoscopy should be reviewed by an experienced histopathologist before discussion at the MDM to streamline decision making.

Environmental factors are important in causing gastric cancer (see section 1.2), and usually inherited factors (i.e. genes) play a minor role. Occasionally gastric cancers are due to an inherited cancer predisposition. The features that raise the possibility of an inherited cancer predisposition include:

  • diffuse-type gastric cancer in people aged under 40 years
  • Māori ancestry and diffuse-type gastric cancer at any age
  • cleft lip or palate and diffuse-type gastric cancer at any age
  • intestinal-type gastric cancer and a history of intestinal polyposis
  • intestinal-type gastric cancer and multiple gastric fundic gland polyps in the absence of proton-pump inhibitor therapy
  • personal history of another primary cancer, particularly colorectal, endometrial or lobular breast cancer
  • family history of first- or second-degree relatives with primary gastric cancer (especially if diffuse-type), colorectal, endometrial or lobular breast cancer.

In some cases certain pathological subtypes of cancer or tumour tests (immunohistochemistry or tumour genetic tests) may suggest an underlying inherited cancer predisposition.

Anyone diagnosed with cancer should have a detailed personal and family cancer history taken. Consult relevant guidelines to determine if referral to a familial cancer service is appropriate.

A familial cancer service assessment can determine if genetic testing is appropriate. Genetic testing is likely to be offered when there is at least a 10 per cent chance of finding a causative ‘gene error’ (pathogenic gene variant; previously called a mutation). Usually testing begins with a variant search in a person who has had cancer (a diagnostic genetic test). If a pathogenic gene variant is identified, variant-specific testing is available to relatives to see if they have or have not inherited the familial gene variant (predictive genetic testing).

Medicare funds some genetic tests via a Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) item number but most are not. Depending on the personal and family history, the relevant state health system may fund public sector genetic testing.

Pre-test counselling and informed consent is required before any genetic testing. In some states the treating team can offer ‘mainstream’ diagnostic genetic testing, after which referral is made to a familial cancer service if a pathogenic gene variant is identified. The familial cancer service can provide risk management advice, facilitate family risk notification and arrange predictive genetic testing for the family.

Genetic testing is most likely to be helpful in the case of young onset or familial diffuse-type gastric cancer (see the eviQ website), especially when there is Māori ancestry (see table above). Genetic testing is not usually helpful when there is a personal or family history of intestinal-type gastric cancer only.

In most families with ‘gastric plus other cancers’, genetic testing is not able to identify a responsible gene. Notable exceptions include:

  • a personal or family history of mismatch repair-deficient gastric (usually intestinal-type) cancer
  • colorectal or endometrial cancer, which raises the possibility of lynch syndrome
  • a personal or family history of intestinal-type gastric cancer and multiple colorectal adenomatous polyps, which raises the possibility of familial adenomatosis polyposis (FAP) and gastric adenocarcinoma and proximal polyposis of the stomach (GAPPS).

Visit the Centre for Genetics Education website for basic information about cancer in a family.

Staging is a critical element in treatment planning and should be clearly documented in the patient’s medical record.

Staging for oesophageal cancer may involve these tests:

  • CT scan of the neck, thorax, abdomen and pelvis
  • endoscopic ultrasound
  • PET scan
  • endoscopic resection, which can provide staging information for selected early cancers.

Staging for oesophagogastric junction cancer may involves these tests:

  • CT scan of the neck, thorax, abdomen and pelvis
  • endoscopic ultrasound
  • staging laparoscopy to exclude metastatic disease and assess resectability
  • PET scan
  • endoscopic resection, which can provide staging information for selected early cancers.

Staging for gastric cancer may involve these tests:

  • CT scan of the neck, thorax, abdomen and pelvis
  • endoscopic resection (in early lesions)
  • staging laparoscopy to exclude metastatic disease and assess resectability.

In addition, the following tests may be required:

  • full blood count
  • liver and renal function tests
  • pulmonary and cardiac assessment to assess fitness for therapy.

Staging work-up needs to be complete to allow presentation at an MDM within two weeks of diagnosis and within four weeks of the general practitioner referral.

More information

Visit the Cancer Institute New South Wales website for information about understanding the stages of cancer.

Patient performance status is a central factor in cancer care and should be clearly documented in the patient’s medical record.

Performance status should be measured and recorded using an established scale such as the Karnofsky scale or the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group (ECOG) scale.

A number of factors should be considered at this stage:

  • the patient’s overall condition, life expectancy, personal preferences and decision- making capacity
  • discussing the multidisciplinary team approach to care with the patient
  • appropriate and timely referral to an MDM
  • pregnancy and fertility
  • support with travel and accommodation
  • teleconferencing or videoconferencing as required

The multidisciplinary team should meet to discuss newly diagnosed patients before definitive treatment so that a treatment plan can be recommended and there can be early preparation for the post-treatment phase. Patients with oesophagogastric cancer should be discussed at an MDM within four weeks of the general practitioner referral. The level of discussion may vary, depending on the patient’s clinical and supportive care factors. Some patients with non-complex cancers may not be discussed by a multidisciplinary team; instead the team may have treatment plan protocols that will be applied if the patient’s case (cancer) meets the criteria. If patients are not discussed at an MDM, they should at least be named on the agenda for noting. The proposed treatment must be recorded in the patient’s medical record and should be recorded in an MDM database where one exists.

Teams may agree on standard treatment protocols for non-complex care, facilitating patient review (by exception) and associated data capture.

Results of all relevant tests and access to images should be available for the MDM. Information about the patient’s concerns, preferences and social and cultural circumstances should also be available.

The multidisciplinary team requires administrative support in developing the agenda for the meeting, for collating patient information and to ensure appropriate expertise around the table to create an effective treatment plan for the patient. The MDM has a chair and multiple lead clinicians. Each patient case will be presented by a lead clinician (usually someone who has seen the patient before the MDM). In public hospital settings, the registrar or clinical fellow may take this role. A member of the team records the outcomes of the discussion and treatment plan in the patient history and ensures these details are communicated to the patient’s general practitioner. The team should consider the patient’s values, beliefs and cultural needs as appropriate to ensure the treatment plan is in line with these.

The multidisciplinary team should be composed of the core disciplines that are integral to providing good care. Team membership should reflect both clinical and supportive care aspects of care. Pathology and radiology expertise are essential.

See ‘About this OCP’ for a list of team members who may be included in the multidisciplinary team for oesophagogastric cancer.

Core members of the multidisciplinary team are expected to attend most MDMs either in person or remotely via virtual mechanisms. Additional expertise or specialist services may be required for some patients. An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural expert should be considered for all patients who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

The general practitioner who made the referral is responsible for the patient until care is passed to another practitioner who is directly involved in planning the patient’s care.

The general practitioner may play a number of roles in all stages of the cancer pathway including diagnosis, referral, treatment, shared follow-up care, post-treatment surveillance, coordination and continuity of care, as well as managing existing health issues and providing information and support to the patient, their family and carer.

A nominated contact person from the multidisciplinary team may be assigned responsibility for coordinating care in this phase. Care coordinators are responsible for ensuring there is continuity throughout the care process and coordination of all necessary care for a particular phase (COSA 2015). The care coordinator may change over the course of the pathway.

The lead clinician is responsible for overseeing the activity of the team and for implementing treatment within the multidisciplinary setting.

Patients should be encouraged to participate in research or clinical trials where available and appropriate.

For more information visit the Cancer Australia website.

Chemotherapy, chemoradiation and surgery may lead to significantly reduced nutritional status, physical function and cardiorespiratory fitness in patients with oesophagogastric cancer. This can have a negative effect the patient’s long-term quality of life. A multidisciplinary approach is critical. Team members may include anaesthetists, oncologists, surgeons, haematologists, clinical psychologists, exercise physiologists, physiotherapists and dietitians, among others.

Patient performance status is a central factor in cancer care and should be frequently assessed. All patients should be screened for malnutrition using a validated tool, such as the Malnutrition Screening Tool (MST). The lead clinician may refer obese or malnourished patients to a dietitian preoperatively or before other treatments begin. Ideally, the dietitian should be present in the MDM to discuss early nutrition support. Patients who receive nutritional supplementation before treatment may have improved quality of life and fewer treatment complications (Arends et al. 2016).

Cancer prehabilitation helps prepare patients for treatments such as surgery and prevents deconditioning while undergoing systemic therapy and radiation therapy.

Patients who currently smoke should be encouraged to stop smoking before receiving treatment. This should include an offer of referral to Quitline in addition to smoking cessation pharmacotherapy if clinically appropriate.

Evidence indicates that patients who respond well to prehabilitation may have fewer complications after treatment. For example, those who were exercising before diagnosis and patients who use prehabilitation before starting treatment may improve their physical or psychological outcomes, or both, and this helps patients to function at a higher level throughout their cancer treatment (Cormie et al. 2017; Silver 2015).

For patients with oesophagogastric cancer, the multidisciplinary team should consider these specific prehabilitation assessments and interventions for treatment-related complications or major side effects:

  • conducting a physical, nutritional and psychological assessment to establish a baseline function level
  • identifying impairments and providing targeted interventions to improve the patient’s function level (Silver & Baima 2013)
  • reviewing the patient’s medication to ensure optimisation and to improve adherence to medicine used for comorbid conditions.

Following completion of primary cancer treatment, rehabilitation programs have considerable potential to enhance physical function

Cancer and cancer treatment may cause fertility problems. This will depend on the age of the patient, the type of cancer and the treatment received. Infertility can range from difficulty having a child to the inability to have a child. Infertility after treatment may be temporary, lasting months to years, or permanent (AYA Cancer Fertility Preservation Guidance Working Group 2014).

Patients need to be advised about and potentially referred for discussion about fertility preservation before starting treatment and need advice about contraception before, during and after treatment. Patients and their family should be aware of the ongoing costs involved in optimising fertility. Fertility management may apply in both men and women. Fertility preservation options are different for men and women and the need for ongoing contraception applies to both men and women.

The potential for impaired fertility should be discussed and reinforced at different time points as appropriate throughout the diagnosis, treatment, surveillance and survivorship phases of care. These ongoing discussions will enable the patient and, if applicable, the family to make informed decisions. All discussions should be documented in the patient’s medical record.

More information

See the Cancer Council website for more information.

See validated screening tools mentioned in Principle 4 ‘Supportive care’.

A number of specific challenges and needs may arise for patients at this time:

  • assistance for dealing with psychological and emotional distress while adjusting to the diagnosis; treatment phobias; existential concerns; stress; difficulties making treatment decisions; anxiety or depression or both; psychosexual issues such as potential loss of fertility and premature menopause; history of sexual abuse; and interpersonal problems
  • management of physical symptoms such as pain and fatigue (Australian Adult Cancer Pain Management Guideline Working Party 2019)
  • referral to a dietitian for nutritional assessment and support:
    • GI symptoms (e.g. dysphagia, pain, nausea, vomiting, mucositis, anorexia, cachexia and indigestion may require optimal symptom control with medication and referral to a dietitian if dietary intake is affected.
    • Weight loss due to GI symptoms, difficulty swallowing and decrease in appetite can be significant issues that require referral to a dietitian before, during and after treatment.
    • Malnutrition or undernutrition assessment, identified using a validated nutrition screening tool such as the MST (note that many patients with a high BMI [obese patients] may also be malnourished [WHO 2018]) to identify patients at risk.
    • Patients requiring oral nutrition support or feeding via enteral nutrition, or patients with a stent, should receive support from dietitians with expertise in managing these interventions before, during and after treatment.
  • access to urgent endoscopy if required
  • support for families or carers who are distressed with the patient’s cancer diagnosis
  • financial and employment issues (e.g. loss of income, travel and accommodation requirements for rural patients, and caring arrangements for other family members)
  • support for families/relatives who may be distressed after learning of a genetically linked cancer diagnosis
  • specific spiritual needs that may benefit from the involvement of pastoral/spiritual care.

Additionally, palliative care may be required at this stage.

For more information on supportive care and needs that may arise for different population groups, see Appendices A and B, and special population groups.

In discussion with the patient, the lead clinician and care coordinator should undertake the following:

  • establish if the patient has a regular or preferred general practitioner and, if the patient does not have one, then encourage them to find one
  • provide written information appropriate to the health literacy of the patient about the diagnosis and treatment to the patient and carer and refer the patient to the Guide to best cancer care (consumer optimal care pathway) for oesophagogastric cancer, as well as to relevant websites and support groups as appropriate
  • provide a treatment care plan including contact details for the treating team and information on when to call the hospital
  • discuss a timeframe for diagnosis and treatment with the patient and carer
  • discuss the benefits of multidisciplinary care and gain the patient’s consent before presenting their case at an MDM
  • provide brief advice and refer to Quitline (13 7848) for behavioural intervention if the patient currently smokes (or has recently quit), and prescribe smoking cessation pharmacotherapy, if clinically appropriate
  • recommend an ‘integrated approach’ throughout treatment regarding nutrition, exercise and minimal or no alcohol consumption among other considerations
  • communicate the benefits of continued engagement with primary care during treatment for managing comorbid disease, health promotion, care coordination and holistic care
  • where appropriate, review fertility needs with the patient and refer for specialist fertility management (including fertility preservation, contraception, management during pregnancy and of future pregnancies)
  • be open to and encourage discussion about the diagnosis, prognosis (if the patient wishes to know) and survivorship and palliative care while clarifying the patient’s preferences and needs, personal and cultural beliefs and expectations, and their ability to comprehend the communication
  • encourage the patient to participate in advance care planning including considering appointing one or more substitute decision-makers and completing an advance care directive to clearly document their treatment preferences. Each state and territory has different terminology and legislation surrounding advance care directives and substitute decision-makers.

The lead clinician has these communication responsibilities:

  • involving the general practitioner from the point of diagnosis
  • ensuring regular and timely communication with the general practitioner about the diagnosis, treatment plan and recommendations from MDMs and inviting them to participate in MDMs (consider using virtual mechanisms)
  • supporting the role of general practice both during and after treatment
  • discussing shared or team care arrangements with general practitioners or regional cancer specialists, or both, together with the patient.
More information

Refer to Principle 6 ‘Communication’ for communication skills training programs and resources.