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Patient Information

Rectal cancer is cancer that starts in the lining of the rectum, which is the last six inches of the colon, or large intestine.

WakeMed’s gastroenterology team helps rectal cancer patients lead longer and healthier lives through early detection, a range of treatment options, and individualized and collaborative care. When surgery is needed, our colorectal surgeons provide expert surgical care.

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What Are the Symptoms and Risk Factors of Rectal Cancer?

Rectal cancer is highly treatable when caught early, so catching any early warning signs is crucial.

However, some people experience no symptoms of rectal cancer. When present, rectal cancer symptoms can include:

  • Rectal bleeding or blood in stool
  • Abdominal pain
  • Cramps that won’t go away
  • A change in bowel habits
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Rectal pain or pressure
  • Thin-caliber stools

Those at Higher Risk of Rectal Cancer

  • Are 50 years of age or older (more than 90% of people are diagnosed after age 50)
  • Have a family history of colorectal cancer
  • Have colon polyps
  • Have inflammatory bowel disease, like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease

How Is Rectal Cancer Diagnosed?

Early detection is the best way to effectively treat rectal cancer. Most rectal cancer develops from rectal polyps, which are growths on the rectal wall.  A colonoscopy looks at the inner lining of the colon and the rectum to check for polyps or cancer. 

If the results from a colonoscopy determine that it’s rectal cancer, we may perform more tests, including:

  • Digital rectal examination, in which the doctor inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for any abnormalities
  • Proctoscopy, which uses a thin tube to look at the inside of the anus and rectum. Sometimes, it can also be used to remove tissue samples.
  • Biopsy, in which tissue is removed to be checked for signs of cancer
  • Blood tests 
  • Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans

How Is Rectal Cancer Treated?

At WakeMed, we work collaboratively to create a customized treatment plan for each patient. Depending on the stage of the cancer, or how far it’s spread, treatment can include:

  • Removing polyps during a colonoscopy
  • Minimally invasive surgery to remove larger polyps
  • Surgery to remove the part of the rectum that has the cancer
  • Chemotherapy, which uses drugs to destroy cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy, which uses X-rays to destroy cancer cells

What Does Surgical Treatment Involve?

Thanks to minimally invasive robotic surgery and laparoscopy, our surgeons can often perform surgery for rectal cancer without making large incisions.

In robotic/laparoscopic rectal surgery, the surgeon carefully removes the cancer, lymph nodes, and a portion of the normal rectum.

Learn more about what to expect from colorectal surgery.