Rectal Cancer | Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center | Loyola Medicine

Rectal Cancer

Overview and Facts about Rectal Cancer

Rectal cancer is the presence of cancerous tissue in the rectum. Your rectum is located below your large intestine or colon and before your anus. Thus, your rectum is part of your digestive health system, the system that draws nutrients from the meals you eat.

The term “rectal cancer” is often blended with “colon cancer” to produce the term “colorectal cancer.” However, it is important to note that the rectum and colon are two distinct parts of the gastrointestinal tract; rectal cancer is cancer that derives from rectal tissue, and colon cancer is cancer that derives from colon tissue.

Signs and Symptoms of Rectal Cancer

Individuals with rectal cancer may show little to no symptoms, especially during early stages of the disease. Thus, early-stage rectal cancer is often diagnosed through routine screening exams.

At later stages of the disease, rectal cancer symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea or narrow stools
  • Constipation and bloating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Bloody stools
  • Feelings of a stuffy bowel
  • Changes in appetite
  • Fatigue

Causes and Risk Factors of Rectal Cancer

Individuals who smoke or engage in alcohol abuse bear a high risk of developing rectal cancer. A personal history of colon, rectal, or ovarian cancer and large colon or rectal cancer polyps also increase risk. Genetics also play a role, as a person with a first degree family history of colon or rectal cancer bears an increased risk of developing the disease. Age is also a risk factor, as the chances of developing rectal cancer increase with age.

Other risk factors include:

Tests and Diagnosis of Rectal Cancer

Colonoscopy exams are commonly used to identify the presence of rectal cancer. A digital rectal exam is also performed to check for any physical signs of rectal cancer, such as lumps in the rectum, or in some cases in women, lumps felt through the vagina. Stools are also examined for blood. Rectal cancer may also be confirmed by removing a sample of the infected rectal tissue to screen for any signs of rectal cancer in a laboratory.

Treatment and Care for Rectal Cancer

Individuals over the age of 50 are especially encouraged to undergo routine colonoscopy exams to ensure that rectal cancer is identified and treated early to achieve the best possible treatment outcomes. The most common and effective treatment therapy for rectal cancer is surgery. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are also used to destroy rectal cancer cells. A combination of these three treatment methods may also be used, depending on the stage and aggressiveness of the cancer.