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Rectal cancer

Diagnosis of rectal cancer

Most rectal cancers do not cause symptoms in the early stages. This is one of the reasons why screenings are essential. Many cases of rectal cancer are identified through preventive checkups when there are no symptoms.

Genetic testing may reveal whether you are at a higher risk of colorectal cancer due to family history.

During a screening appointment, a colonoscopy is the primary test used. For this procedure, a thin, lighted tube with an attached camera is inserted through the anus to look at the rectum and lower colon. If you don’t have symptoms of colorectal cancer, your doctor will let you know how often to get a colonoscopy screening test. Depending on your family history and other risk factors, your doctor will likely recommend you undergo a colonoscopy every ten years after you turn 50.

During a colonoscopy, your doctor may take a biopsy, or small tissue sample, and examine it under a microscope.

Other tests include a fecal occult blood test or fecal immunochemical test to check for signs of blood in your stool. Imaging tests may also be used to view any possible cancer growths in your rectum or lower colon.

If cancer is identified, your doctor will stage your cancer. He or she will determine how far into the wall of the rectum it has penetrated and whether cancerous cells have begun to spread to neighboring or distant lymph nodes or other organs in the body.


At Dignity Health, our oncologists offer a wide range of prevention measures and treatments for rectal cancer. Your individual treatment will depend on the stage of your rectal cancer. For all stages of rectal cancer, surgery to remove affected tissues is the most common form of treatment.

Other options include radiation, chemotherapy, and targeted therapies.

Dignity Health provides comprehensive care for rectal cancer as part of our oncology services.


Most people diagnosed with rectal cancer have excellent outcomes after treatment. Colorectal cancer is one of the most common types of cancer (affecting almost 1 in 20 people in the U.S. at some point during their lives), and there are now hundreds of thousands of people living in full remission from rectal cancer.

After completing treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery to fully remove cancer cells from your body, you will be considered “in remission.” You will then need to attend regular screenings to make sure the cancer does not recur.

It may take a while to recover following cancer treatment. You may need to follow a special diet or avoid foods that can cause gastrointestinal distress, including high-fiber foods and artificial sweeteners like sorbitol. You will likely need to follow a liquid-only diet for at least a few days following a procedure.

You may experience bowel movement changes after surgery, such as needing to go more frequently. Some people find that they actually experience less discomfort, if the cancer was causing symptoms.

After surgical treatment, you may need to avoid activities that put a strain on the abdominal wall, like weightlifting.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.