Symptoms and Signs of Rectal Cancer Treatment

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 3/23/2022

Doctor's Notes on Rectal Cancer Treatment

Rectal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form from the tissues of the rectum (rectum and anus comprise the last 6-8 inches of the large intestine). Signs and symptoms that may indicate diagnosis and/or treatment is needed are

  • blood in the stool,
  • changing bowel habits (diarrhea, constipation),
  • feeling like you cannot empty your bowels,
  • narrow stools,
  • abdominal discomfort,
  • gas/bloating,
  • appetite change,
  • unintentional weight loss, and
  • feeling very tired.

Causes of rectal cancer are not clear but risk factors include family history, other GI cancers or GI problems like IBD, genetics (familial adenomatous polyposis), smoking, 3 or more alcoholic drinks per day, obese, older age and/or being black. Five types of standard treatments are used; surgery (most common), radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and active surveillance. Some individuals will be treated by more than one therapy type; treatments are individualized according to the medical condition of the patient and how aggressive is the cancer.

What Is the Treatment of Rectal Cancer?

Rectal cancer treatments often involve two or more therapies in combination. Treatments are chosen with the aim to remove the cancer cells from the rectum, mainly by surgery but usually augmented by chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Surgical options include the following:

  • Removal of small cancers with a colonoscope or similar procedure
  • Removing all or part of the rectum: leaves the anus intact so a colostomy bag is not required
  • Rectum and anus removal: requires a colostomy bag

Other therapy, which is sometimes used either before or after surgery:

  • Chemoradiotherapy: drugs and radiation combined usually in advanced rectal cancers
  • Targeted drug therapy: drugs designed to kill cancer cells that react with unique cancer cell sites
  • Immunotherapy: drugs used to enhance your immune system to therapy -- recognize and interfere with rectal cancer cells

You and your doctors can decide what treatments may be best for your illness.


Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.