Rectal cancer is cancer that begins in the rectum. Its symptoms include bloody stool, bowel pain, and constipation. The outlook for people with this form of cancer is very good in its early stages but can be quite poor later on.

Rectal cancer is a type of colorectal cancer.

This article takes a detailed look at rectal cancer. After comparing it with colorectal cancer, we will discuss its symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment.

The article will also detail rectal cancer prevention, the outlook for those with the disease, and ways to get support.

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Colorectal cancer is any cancer that affects the colon or rectum. The colon and rectum are connected. The colon is the large intestine, and the rectum connects the colon to the anus.

Rectal cancer begins in the rectum. It is different from colon cancer, which starts in the colon. Colon cancer is another type of colorectal cancer.

Some people can have colon cancer and rectal cancer at the same time.

Rectal cancer can be asymptomatic. It may also present with a variety of symptoms.

These include:

As rectal cancer develops, cancer cells may travel to other body parts. This is called metastasis.

When cancer spreads in this way, it can affect the functioning of other organs. This could manifest in many different ways, depending on the organ in question.

With rectal cancer, the cells of the rectum begin to grow out of control. They could grow too quickly, become too large, or multiply at a fast rate. They might also grow into dysfunctional cells.

Rectal cancer occurs when rectal cells acquire changes to their DNA. This altered DNA disrupts normal cell growth, frequently accelerating it, causing the rectal cancer.

An individual can inherit these changes. They might also develop them due to environmental or lifestyle factors.

Risk factors

Rectal cancer risk factors are things that indicate a higher-than-average risk of developing this condition. They are not necessarily causes of rectal cancer.

According to a 2022 review, rectal cancer risk factors include:

  • being over 50 years of age
  • having a family history of rectal cancer
  • smoking tobacco
  • consuming alcohol
  • having obesity
  • eating red or processed meat
  • using androgen replacement therapy
  • having had a cholecystectomy

These factors do not make rectal cancer inevitable.

As the National Cancer Institute (NCI) states, doctors may use several diagnostic tests to determine whether a person has rectal cancer. These tests include:

  • asking about personal and family medical history
  • a physical exam
  • a digital rectal exam
  • a colonoscopy
  • a biopsy

Other tests look for different tumor markers, which are chemicals that the body forms in response to cancer.

For instance, immunohistochemistry looks for certain antigens in body tissues. A carcinoembryonic antigen assay does the same but tests the blood instead.

Upon diagnosing someone with rectal cancer, a cancer specialist will determine the best possible treatment plan. As the NCI explains, this could involve the following treatment options:

Doctors may recommend several of the above treatments. A specific treatment plan will depend on an individual’s cancer and their general health.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the average 5-year relative survival rate for people with rectal cancer is 68%. This means a person has a 68% chance of living for another 5 years compared with those without rectal cancer.

However, a person’s outlook with this condition greatly depends upon its stage:

  • Localized rectal cancer has a 5-year relative survival rate of 90%.
  • Regional rectal cancer has a 5-year relative survival rate of 74%.
  • Distant rectal cancer has a 5-year relative survival rate of 17%.

The ACS defines these figures using the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database.

According to the SEER database, a localized rectal cancer has not spread outside the rectum. A regional rectal cancer has, but only to nearby lymph nodes. A distant cancer is one that has spread to distant body parts, such as the liver or the lungs.

Is rectal cancer curable?

According to the 2022 review, doctors can sometimes cure rectal cancer. For instance, surgery can sometimes cure early stage rectal cancer on its own.

As the ACS explains, doctors have cured someone’s cancer if:

  • the cancer has gone away
  • the individual who had the cancer no longer needs treatment
  • the cancer should not be coming back

A doctor may use the term “complete remission” instead of “cured.” This means there is no sign of the cancer. Healthcare professionals may consider a person to be cured of cancer if they remain in complete remission for at least 5 years.

Having rectal cancer can be challenging. An individual with this condition may seek the support of friends, relatives, and loved ones.

A person can find support groups and resources through the following organizations:

Anyone with symptoms of rectal cancer should seek a doctor’s advice. This is especially true for people who are at greater risk of rectal cancer.

An early diagnosis can mean earlier treatment, which research has shown to be highly effective.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an individual may lower their risk of developing rectal cancer with the following measures:

  • getting routine rectal cancer screenings from the age of 45 years
  • following a diet that is low in animal fats but high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • being physically active
  • achieving and maintaining a moderate body weight
  • avoiding alcohol and tobacco

Rectal cancer is cancer that begins in a person’s rectum. It is a type of colorectal cancer.

Many things can increase the risk of getting rectal cancer. Being older is one of them, alongside having a family history of rectal cancer. Smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, and having obesity are also rectal cancer risk factors.

Avoiding these latter risk factors could help prevent rectal cancer. The same is true of regular cancer screenings. These screenings could catch rectal cancer early, making treatment more effective. Indeed, the outlook for those with localized rectal cancer is good.