Rectal cancer is a disease in which cancer cells develop in the rectum. Signs of rectal cancer include diarrhea, constipation or blood in your poop. Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Rectal cancer is curable, especially when detected early through screening methods like colonoscopy.
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Rectal cancer affects both men and women, though men are slightly more likely to develop the disease. In most cases, people diagnosed with the disease are over the age of 50. However, it’s possible for teens and young adults to develop rectal cancer, as well.
Approximately 5% of people will develop rectal cancer at some point in their lives. Of those people, about 11% will be under the age of 50.
During Stage I, rectal cancer has grown into the deep layers of the rectal wall but has not spread to nearby areas. People with Stage I rectal cancer may not experience any warning signs or symptoms. That’s why routine colonoscopy screenings are so important.
There are different types of cancers and diseases that can affect the rectum. These include:
In many cases, rectal cancers don’t cause symptoms at all. However, some people may notice certain warning signs. Rectal cancer symptoms may include:
The exact cause of rectal cancer is unknown. However, there are certain risk factors that increase your chance of developing the disease, including:
Experts recommend that all people have routine colorectal screenings beginning at age 45. People who have a higher risk of rectal cancer should undergo more frequent screenings. Find out more about general cancer screening guidelines recommended by healthcare providers.
Rectal cancer is categorized into five different stages. Your diagnosis depends on how large the rectal cancer tumor is and whether or not it has spread:
If you have Stage 4 metastatic rectal cancer, it means that the cancer has spread beyond the rectum into other areas of the body. While it’s possible for these cancer cells to travel anywhere in your body, they’re more likely to end up in the liver, lungs, brain or abdominal lining.
Most cases of rectal cancer are diagnosed during routine screenings. In some instances, your provider may suspect the disease based on your symptoms.
If your healthcare provider thinks you could have rectal cancer, they may order some tests to confirm your diagnosis. These tests may include:
Rectal cancer treatment depends on several factors, including the location, size and stage of your tumor, as well as your overall health and personal preferences. Options include:
One of the most common rectal cancer treatments, surgery removes cancer cells. There are a few different surgical options based on your specific needs:
Chemotherapy may be used before surgery to shrink a tumor, or after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.
Like chemotherapy, radiation therapy may be used before or after surgery. Radiation therapy uses strong energy beams to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing and dividing. It can be used in combination with chemotherapy.
Immunotherapy uses drugs to boost your immune system and teach your body how to attack cancer cells.
If you have advanced rectal cancer, your oncologist may recommend targeted drug therapy in combination with chemotherapy. These treatments target specific abnormalities in the cancer cells, causing them to die.
Complications can vary depending on which type of rectal cancer treatment you receive. Additionally, every person’s experience may be different. Just because someone else had certain complications doesn’t mean that you will have them too. Tiredness, weight changes, nausea/vomiting and diarrhea are the most common side effects during most rectal cancer treatments.
While you can’t prevent rectal cancer altogether, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk. For example:
Yes. When detected and treated early, rectal cancer can be successfully cured.
The overall five-year survival rate for rectal cancer is 63%. This means that people who have rectal cancer are about 63% as likely to be alive in five years as people who don’t have rectal cancer. The five-year survival rate for localized rectal cancer (that hasn’t spread to other areas of the body) is 91%. This means that people who have early stage rectal cancer are about 91% as likely to be alive in five years as people who don’t have rectal cancer.
Keep in mind that survival rates are estimates based on people who have had rectal cancer in the past. They can’t predict what will happen or how long you will live. To learn more about rectal cancer survival rates, talk with your healthcare provider.
If you’re undergoing rectal cancer treatment, call your healthcare provider right away if you develop:
You know your body best, so trust your gut. If something doesn’t seem quite right, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. They can find ways to ease your symptoms and help you feel better.
If you’ve been diagnosed with rectal cancer, you’ll want to gather as much information as you can. Here are some questions to ask your healthcare provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Being diagnosed with rectal cancer can be overwhelming. You may feel sad, scared, frustrated or angry. Ask your healthcare provider about resources that can help you navigate this difficult time. You may also want to consider joining a support group for people with rectal cancer. Knowledge is power. Having a full understanding of your diagnosis and treatment options can empower you and help you take back control of your health.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/27/2021.
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