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Rectal cancer is cancer that develops in the tissues of the rectum, part of the body’s intestinal tract. Making up the lowest portion of the large intestine, the rectum and anal canal are six to eight inches long. The rectum stores solid waste until it leaves the body through the anus. Colon cancer develops in the first six feet of the large intestine (the colon), above the rectum. Together, colon cancer and rectal cancer are referred to as colorectal cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, rectal cancer affects over 40,000 individuals each year. The exact cause of rectal cancer is unknown, but most of these cancers begin as non-cancerous growths or polyps. Over time some polyps can become rectal cancer.
As with colon cancer, surgery is the most common treatment for all stages of rectal cancer, and particularly for early-stage rectal cancer. The primary goal of rectal cancer surgery is to ensure that all cancerous tissue is removed. For advanced stages of rectal cancer, chemotherapy and radiation therapy may also be used.
Colon and rectal surgeons at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) are the surgical team of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, a unique center uniting the world’s best GI cancer experts. Our board certified surgeons are leaders in rectal cancer surgery, performing a large volume of minimally invasive sphincter-sparing surgical techniques, including total mesorectal excision and transanal endoscopic microsurgery.
Learn more about rectal cancer from Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center.
Factors that contribute to an increased risk for rectal cancer include:
Rectal cancer is often in a more advanced stage when symptoms present. Common symptoms are:
Beginning at age 50, men and women should follow one of these examination schedules:
People with colorectal cancer risk factors should begin screening procedures at an earlier age and/or be screened more often.
Learn more about colorectal cancer screening.
Learn about the Center for Community Health and Health Equity (CCHHE) colorectal screening program.
If you are having symptoms of rectal cancer, your surgeon will ask about your health history, your family’s history of cancer and risk factors. Diagnostic test include many of the same exams done for people without symptoms:
Learn more about diagnostic tests and procedures for rectal cancer.
After rectal cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the rectum or to other parts of the body.
Surgery is the most common treatment for all stages of rectal cancer. Colon and rectal surgeons at Brigham and Women's Hospital have two main goals for treating patients with rectal cancer: removing all cancerous tissue and sparing the anal sphincter to avoid a permanent colostomy.
Sphincter-Sparing Surgical Techniques
Our colon and rectal surgeons are international leaders in minimally invasive operations that preserve the anal sphincter. These surgical techniques include:
You will receive a thorough diagnostic examination to evaluate if you have rectal cancer and determine what course of treatment is needed. Careful monitoring and the involvement of an experienced colon and rectal surgeon are important to the successful outcome for patients with rectal cancer.
If you are having surgery or a procedure, you will likely be scheduled for a visit to the Weiner Center for Preoperative Evaluation for pre-operative information and tests.
The day of surgery, you will be cared for in the operating room by surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses who specialize in surgery for patients with rectal cancer. After surgery, you will recover in the post-surgical care unit where you will receive comprehensive care by an experienced surgical and nursing staff.
The Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center provides the world's most advanced and innovative multidisciplinary care for patients with gastrointestinal diseases, such as rectal cancer. Our treatment team includes colon and rectal surgeons, medical and radiation oncologists, nutritionists, pathologists, anesthesiologists and gastroenterologists. In addition, patients have full access to BWH's world-renowned academic medical community with its diverse specialists and state-of-the-art facilities.
Contact one of our cancer surgeons in the list at the top of the page to make an appointment.
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