Rectal Cancer: What You Need to Know
Rectal cancer is a slow-growing but dangerous cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, rectal cancer is also sometimes called “colorectal” cancer because this type of cancer can start in the colon as well as the rectum.
Most colorectal cancers begin as a growth on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. This growth is called a “polyp.” Polyps don’t always become cancer. However, if cancer does form inside a polyp, it can grow into the wall of the colon or rectum and become more serious.
More than 95% of colorectal cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the cells that make mucus to lubricate the inside of the colon and rectum.
Who is most likely to get colorectal cancer?
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes cancer in the rectum and colon, but they do know some of the factors that seem to increase risk. It is more likely to affect:
- People who are overweight or obese
- People who do not get a lot of exercise or physical activity
- People whose diets include large amounts of red meat or processed meats like hot dogs and cold cuts
- People who smoke or drink a lot of alcohol
- Older people, with rates of colorectal cancer being much higher in people over the age of 50
- African-Americans and Jewish people from Eastern Europe
- People with a history of inflammatory bowel disease
- People with type 2 diabetes
Colon and rectal cancer can be prevented
Regular testing is one of the best ways to prevent colorectal cancer. This type of test is called “colorectal screening.” It can take about 10 to 15 years for polyps to develop into colorectal cancer. With regular screening, most polyps can be found and removed before they turn into cancer.
People at risk for cancer of the colon or the rectum can also manage some of the risk factors. They can:
- Get to a healthy weight and avoid gaining weight in the belly
- Exercise regularly and get a lot of physical activity, especially vigorous activity
- Eat a diet high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains. The diet should also be low in red meat and processed meat
- Stop smoking
- Drink less alcohol
Rectal cancer spreads in stages
It’s important to know what stage cancer you have, because that tells you and your doctors if it has spread. However, the stages of rectal cancer can be complicated. We’ll give you the short version:
Stage 0 – At this stage, the cancer is staying in the innermost lining of the rectum or bowel.
Stage 1 – Now the cancer has broken through the innermost lining. It has not yet made it past the main muscle layer of the rectal or bowel wall.
Stage 2 – At this stage, the tumor has grown through the wall and may have invaded nearby organs. It has not spread to any distant organs or lymph nodes.
Stage 3 – By now, the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
Stage 4 – At this point the cancer is very advanced and has spread through the body.
Treating colon and rectal cancer
The most common treatments for colon and rectal cancer include:
- Surgery – This is the way most colorectal cancer is treated. The best chance for a cure is to remove the tumor or tumors. Only the part of your colon or rectum that has the tumor is usually removed.
- Ablation – Some doctors will remove the cancer by physical means aside from surgery. For example, they may use high-energy radio waves to kill and remove the cancer. Or they may inject the tumor with alcohol. Or they may freeze it with a metal probe.
- Chemotherapy – Drugs that destroy cancer cells or stop them from spreading are called “chemotherapy.” These drugs come in many types, and some work better together. That’s why your doctors may give you two or more at the same time.
- Targeted treatments – Targeted drugs are different from chemotherapy because they only fight cancer cells, not healthy ones. These drugs may give you fewer side effects than chemotherapy.
- Radiation therapy – This treatment uses high-energy waves to destroy cancer cells. Radiation therapy can also help ease pain and reduce other cancer symptoms. These treatments do usually have side effects.
Coping with colorectal cancer
Colon and rectal cancer can be hard to treat, and the treatment can cause side effects. You and your loved ones may be looking for ways to cope. Consider the following:
- Connect with family and friends – It’s okay to lean on others when you have this type of cancer. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Talk with your doctor – Your doctors can explain your treatments and help keep your spirits up.
- Locate nearby support groups – Cancer organizations are available to help in many ways. Get in touch with groups in your community.
Regional Cancer Care Associates — Leading the way in cancer care
The doctors at Regional Cancer Care Associates (RCCA) are trained at the world’s leading medical institutions. They are experts who have proven their leadership as professors, clinicians and researchers. At RCCA, you’ll get high-quality, advanced treatment close to home. We’ll work with you and your family to make sure your care is second to none.