Information you need about the symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options for rectal cancer.
Rectal cancer is a disease where cancerous (malignant) cells grow in the tissues of the rectum. The rectum is the tube that connects the colon (large intestine) to the anus, the opening where stool leaves the body. Our specialists diagnose and treat all stages of rectal cancer.
Symptoms of rectal cancer
The main symptom of rectal cancer is bleeding from the rectum. Other common signs and symptoms include:
- Bowel obstruction
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Difficulty passing stool or emptying the bowels completely
- Fatigue or tiredness
- Feeling full or bloated
- Shortness of breath, dizziness and/or a fast heartbeat
- Stools that are narrower than usual
- Stool that is bright red or black from blood in stool
- Pain in the rectum or abdomen
- Unexplained weight loss
If you experience rectal bleeding or any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with a colorectal cancer specialist.
Risk factors for rectal cancer
About 40,000 people are diagnosed with rectal cancer each year in the United States. The risk factors for rectal cancer are not clear, but appear to include:
- A family history of colon or rectal cancer
- A high-fat diet (mostly from animal-based foods)
- Personal or family history of polyps
It’s important to get regular screenings for rectal cancer to prevent it or to detect it at an early stage, when treatment is easier and more effective.
Rectal cancer treatment at Henry Ford
We recommend treatment options for rectal cancer based on the size and location of the cancer. Our rectal cancer specialists will explain an individualized treatment plan and answer questions. We’ll decide your course of care together.
Our comprehensive rectal cancer care includes:
- Advanced treatment options: We use the safest, most effective treatments to cure rectal cancer. Our team continually develops new treatment options through research and clinical trials.
- Education and support: We prepare you for what to expect throughout your rectal cancer treatment and recovery.
- Minimally invasive surgery: We offer all minimally invasive rectal cancer surgery options, including robotic and laparoscopic surgeries. These procedures require fewer incisions and promote faster healing and quicker recovery.
Surgery for rectal cancer
Rectal cancer treatment is complex because we can’t replace the rectum’s function. Our goal is to treat rectal cancer and preserve the function of the rectum whenever possible.
We are one of only eight robotic surgery epicenters in the United States. Our cancer specialists treat the most complex cases with advanced treatment options, including:
- Robotic surgery: We use robotic surgery to treat the delicate rectal area with precision. Ours is among the most experienced robotic surgery centers in the United States.
- Transanal endoscopic microsurgery (TEM): During this procedure, we remove rectal polyps and tumors without incisions.
- Transanal total mesorectal excision (TaTME): In this procedure, we remove the tumor and part of the bowel. We are the only site in Michigan offering this procedure for rectal cancer.
- Laparoscopic surgery: This procedure allows surgeons to use smaller incisions. Compared to traditional surgery, patients have faster recovery, less pain, and lower risk of complications.
- Sphincter-preserving surgery: This option allows some patients to avoid permanent ostomy.
- Specialized polyp removal: Our gastroenterologists are skilled at removing complicated polyps.
- Fecal incontinence surgery: Sometimes fecal incontinence (inability to control bowel movements) happens during cancer treatment or recovery. We offer FDA-approved treatments to help you avoid this problem.
- New treatments: We work to develop new treatments through cancer research and clinical trials.
Chemotherapy and radiation
If the cancer has progressed beyond Stage 0, we may also recommend chemotherapy in oral, injection, intravenous (IV), or topical form.
You also may need radiation therapy to kill cancer cells with less damage to healthy tissue. Ours is one of the most experienced programs in the country for stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT).
We offer external beam radiation therapy for rectal cancer. External beam radiation delivers radiation from a device outside the body.
Our radiation treatments include:
- Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT): SBRT delivers a few, high-dose treatments of radiation directed at small tumors to kill them. We were one of the first centers in Michigan to use SBRT, and we remain the most experienced team in the state.
- Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT): IGRT combines imaging technology with radiation. We capture images of the tumor with a CT (computed tomography) scan or X-ray before each radiation treatment. We use the images to measure the tumor precisely and minimize the radiation that reaches normal cells.
- 3-D conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT): Advanced imaging technology precisely targets radiation to the size and shape of your tumor. This technique spares surrounding healthy tissue.
- Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): A special type of 3D-CRT sends small “beamlets” of radiation that adapt to the three-dimensional size and shape of tumors.
Ostomy for rectal cancer
An ostomy is a surgical opening we create that allows waste to be removed without passing through the colon, rectum or anus, depending on the location. Waste instead collects in a bag so it can be disposed of. Colostomy and ileostomy are two types of ostomy.
Our patients often do not require an ostomy after surgery. If you do need a permanent or temporary ostomy, our nurse practitioner will meet with you privately to answer questions and help you understand how to care for your ostomy.