Rectal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancerous) cells develop in the tissue of the rectum. The rectum is the last part of the large intestine and leads to the anus, which is the opening to the outside of the body. Body waste is stored in the rectum until it is eliminated from the body through the anus.
While the exact cause of rectal cancer is unknown, there are several identified risk factors including:
- Age over 45;
- A personal history of colorectal cancer, colon polyps, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) which includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease;
- A strong family history of colorectal cancer or polyps;
- A high fat diet, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, and excessive alcohol consumption; and/or
- Jews of Eastern European descent called, Ashkenazi Jews have a higher rate of rectal cancer; African-Americans and Hispanics, however, have a higher death rate caused by rectal cancer, which may due to a number of factors other than ethnicity.
Symptoms of rectal cancer may include:
- A change in bowel habits including diarrhea, constipation, or feeling that the bowel does not empty completely;
- Frequent bouts of gas, bloating, a feeling of fullness, or cramping
- Bright red or dark blood in the stool;
- Stools that are narrower than usual;
- Unexplained weight loss;
- Fatigue; and or
In addition to taking a personal medical history, the following tests may be performed to diagnose or rule out rectal cancer:
- A digital rectal exam is a physical exam that involves the doctor or nurse inserting a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum to feel for an abnormalities;
- A lower gastrointestinal series, or barium enema is used to take X-rays of the large intestines;
- A fecal occult blood test detects the presence of occult (hidden) blood in the stool. This test can help detect colon/rectal cancers in a non-invasive way;
- A sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy can be performed to view the inside of the rectum as well as the colon. In these test, a sample of tissue may be taken for biopsy.
If rectal cancer is found, depending of the severity of the cancer, surgery may include local excision of the cancer, resection and anastomosis which involves the removal of the affection portion of the rectal area and attaching the colon to the remaining rectum or anus, or resection and colostomy , used when the rectum cannot be sewn back together. In these cases, a colostomy is performed, which involves creating a surgical opening in the abdominal wall where the remaining colon empties waste products into a special bag called a colostomy bag.
Often in cases of rectal cancer, patients undergo chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment in addition to surgery.
Although a life-threatening disease, rectal cancer is highly curable if found early, making regular check-ups and screenings very important. Always report suspicious changes in your health to your physician to allow for early medical intervention.