Font Size

Colorectal Cancer, Metastatic or Recurrent

Topic Overview

Is this topic for you?

This topic is about colorectal cancer that has spread or come back. If you want to learn more about early-stage colorectal cancer, see the topic Colorectal Cancer.

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer happens when cells that are not normal grow in your colon or rectumClick here to see an illustration.. These cells grow together and form polyps. Over time, some polyps can turn into cancer. This cancer is also called colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where the cancer is.

Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. When colon or rectal cancer spreads, it most often spreads to the liver. Sometimes it spreads to the lungs, bones, or other organs in the body.

Colon and rectal cancers often return months or years after treatment. This is called recurrent cancer. If the original cancer was removed before it was able to spread, the chances that it will return are lower.

What causes metastatic or recurrent colorectal cancer?

Doctors don't know the exact cause. But the cancer is more likely to spread or come back if it is in a later, more advanced stage when it is first discovered.

Sometimes cancer cells are too small to be found by tests. These cells may continue to grow and show up later as metastatic cancer, even years after treatment.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms are:

  • A change in your bowel habits, such as more frequent stools, thinner stools, or a feeling that your bowels are not emptying completely.
  • Blood in your stool or very dark stools.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Belly pain, especially gas pains, cramps, or a feeling of fullness.
  • Losing weight without trying.
  • Constant tiredness (fatigue).

Some people don't have any symptoms.

If your cancer has spread, you may have other symptoms, depending on where the cancer is.

How is metastatic or recurrent colorectal cancer diagnosed?

Colon or rectal cancer that has spread or returned is diagnosed using a physical exam and several tests, including blood tests, chest X-rays, bone scans, ultrasounds, and CT, PET, or MRI scans.

The diagnosis is usually confirmed with a biopsy. During this test, your doctor will take tissue samples from any areas that don't look normal. The tissue will be looked at under a microscope to see if it contains cancer.

If you have been treated for colon or rectal cancer in the past, it's important to have regular checkups to find any new cancer as soon as possible.

How is it treated?

Colon and rectal cancers that have spread or returned may be cured in some cases. Treatment may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. When the cancer cannot be cured, treatment can help you feel better and live longer.

Learning that you have cancer that has spread or come back can be very hard. Some people find that it helps to talk about their feelings with their family and friends. You may also want to talk with your doctor or with other people who have had this kind of cancer. Your local American Cancer Society chapter can help you find a support group.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about metastatic and recurrent colorectal cancer:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Supportive care:

Next Page:

eMedicineHealth Medical Reference from Healthwise

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

To learn more visit

© 1995-2014 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

Medical Dictionary