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Rectal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI] - General Information About Rectal Cancer

Rectal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the rectum.

The rectum is part of the body's digestive system. The digestive system removes and processes nutrients (vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and water) from foods and helps pass waste material out of the body. The digestive system is made up of the esophagus, stomach, and the small and large intestines. The first 6 feet of the large intestine are called the large bowel or colon. The last 6 inches are the rectum and the anal canal. The anal canal ends at the anus (the opening of the large intestine to the outside of the body).
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Anatomy of the lower digestive system, showing the colon and other organs.

See the following PDQ summaries for more information about rectal cancer:

  • Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors Treatment
  • Colorectal Cancer Prevention
  • Colorectal Cancer Screening
  • Genetics of Colorectal Cancer
  • Unusual Cancers of Childhood

Age and family history can affect the risk of rectal cancer.

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. The following are possible risk factors for rectal cancer:

  • Being aged 40 or older.
  • Having certain hereditary conditions, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC or Lynch syndrome).
  • Having a personal history of any of the following:
    • Colorectal cancer.
    • Polyps (small pieces of bulging tissue) in the colon or rectum.
    • Cancer of the ovary, endometrium, or breast.
  • Having a parent, brother, sister, or child with a history of colorectal cancer or polyps.

Possible signs of rectal cancer include a change in bowel habits or blood in the stool.

These and other symptoms may be caused by rectal cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following problems:

  • A change in bowel habits.
    • Diarrhea.
    • Constipation.
    • Feeling that the bowel does not empty completely.
    • Stools that are narrower or have a different shape than usual.
  • Blood (either bright red or very dark) in the stool.
  • General abdominal discomfort (frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness, or cramps).
  • Change in appetite.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Feeling very tired.
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