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Doctors diagnose more than 44,000 new cases of rectal cancer, a common form of colorectal cancer, every year. The UCLA Gastrointestinal Oncology Program will treat your individual case with the most advanced therapies for the best possible outcome.
UCLA brings together nationally recognized providers in rectal cancer diagnosis and treatment. For cases that haven’t responded to existing treatments, our team offers many clinical trials that test potential rectal cancer therapies.
What Is Rectal Cancer?
Rectal cancer means that cells are growing out of control or mutating (changing) in the rectum, which is the last 6 inches of the digestive tract. The rectum stores waste before it leaves the body as feces (stool).
The rectum connects to the colon. Because they have the same types of cells, the rectum and colon can develop the same kinds of cancer. Colon cancer and rectal cancer are also called colorectal cancer. The most common type of colorectal tumor is adenocarcinoma.
Risk factors that increase a person’s likelihood of developing rectal cancer include:
- Family history of colorectal cancer
- Inherited syndromes like Lynch syndrome or familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
- Personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
- Diet high in processed, blackened or red meat
- Inactive lifestyle or being overweight
What Are the Symptoms of Rectal Cancer?
Rectal cancer’s symptoms can be similar to those of other gastrointestinal (GI) conditions. If these symptoms last longer than a week or so, talk to a doctor:
- Diarrhea, constipation or feeling like you need to have a bowel movement
- Narrowing of the stool
- Blood in the stool or dark stools
- Abdominal (belly) cramps or pain
- Anemia (low iron)
- Fatigue, weakness or unexpected weight loss
How Is Rectal Cancer Diagnosed?
Regular colonoscopies are important to screen for precancerous polyps (growths) or possible rectal cancer. To confirm a rectal cancer diagnosis, doctors may use:
- Physical exam: Your doctor will feel your abdomen and examine the rest of your body. The doctor may do a digital rectal exam, inserting a gloved finger into your rectum to check for lumps or growths. Meet our doctors >
- Stool tests: Blood in your stool can indicate possible colorectal cancer. Your doctor may have you take a fecal occult blood test (FOBT) or fecal immunochemical test (FIT). You can do these tests at home, using stool samples.
- Blood tests: A colorectal tumor releases substances called tumor markers. Your doctor will order a complete blood count and other tests to check for tumor markers. Tests that measure your liver enzymes can tell your doctor if cancer may have spread to your liver.
- Diagnostic colonoscopy: To check the location and status of growths in the colon or rectum, your doctor may do a diagnostic colonoscopy. During this test, the doctor can take a sample (biopsy) of a growth. The laboratory evaluates the sample, including doing genetic testing, to provide a diagnosis.
- Proctoscopy: This test uses a probe, inserted through the anus, that provides an image and video of the inside of your rectum. The doctor can see a tumor’s exact size and location to plan the right treatment.
- Imaging: To learn more about a tumor, doctors use imaging tests such as ultrasound, X-rays, CT scans, PET scans or MRI scans. For rectal cancer, your doctor may order an endorectal MRI, which uses a probe inside the rectum to get a clear image. Learn more about our imaging technology.
How Is Rectal Cancer Treated?
Most people with rectal cancer have surgery to remove the tumor. Doctors also look for cancer cells that may have spread through your body (metastasized).
In addition to rectal surgery, many people get other treatments, like radiation, chemotherapy or immunotherapy. These therapies may shrink a tumor before surgery to make it easier to remove. They also may be a treatment on their own, used to destroy cancer cells in other parts of your body.
Whatever treatment path you and your team decide to pursue, you’ll find it at UCLA. We offer:
- Polyp and tumor removal without surgery: UCLA’s colorectal cancer team includes advanced endoscopists who can remove complex polyps and tumors without open surgery. Read more about interventional endoscopy.
- Minimally invasive surgery: Robotic and laparoscopic surgery require only tiny incisions. Learn more about minimally invasive surgery for colorectal cancer.
- Radiation therapy: Radiation uses strong X-rays to destroy cancer cells. Your radiation oncologist will develop a customized plan to target tumor cells and minimize damage to delicate rectal tissue. Read more about radiation oncology.
- Chemotherapy: UCLA doctors helped develop medications that treat metastatic colorectal cancer, including panitumumab (Vectibix®) and bevacizumab (Avastin®). Our ongoing clinical trials study new medicines.
- Chemoradiation: You may have chemoradiation therapy — radiation and chemotherapy at the same time — before rectal surgery. Chemotherapy can make cells more sensitive to radiation therapy.
- Biologic therapy: Two types of biologic treatments, also known as targeted therapy, can attack rectal cancer cells. Anti-angiogenesis therapy starves tumors of blood and nutrients. Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR) Inhibitor blocks the EGFR protein that may make colorectal cancer grow.
- Immunotherapy: Your doctor will discuss if clinical trials of immunotherapy medicines for colorectal cancer are an option for you. Learn more about our clinical trials >
To schedule an appointment with the UCLA Gastrointestinal Oncology Program, please call the UCLA Cancer Hotline at 888-ONC-UCLA (888-662-8252) Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm, or our Physician Referral Service at 1-800-UCLA-MD1 (310-825-2631).