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Female Muslim doctor consulting with rectal cancer patient.

Rectal cancer symptoms tend to develop in the later stages of a tumor’s growth. Precancerous rectal polyps and early-stage tumors rarely produce any noticeable warning signs; however, rectal cancer screenings can detect abnormal growths before noticeable issues arise. There are two types of rectal cancer screenings—stool-based tests and visual exams such as a colonoscopy—and the American Cancer Society recommends adults with average risk of colorectal cancer begin screenings at age 45. Someone is considered at an average risk of rectal cancer if they do not have:

  • A family or personal history of colorectal cancer
  • A history of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • A hereditary colorectal condition such as familial adenomatous polyposis or Lynch syndrome
  • A history of radiation treatment around the abdomen area

If any of the above scenarios applies to you, you may want to start colorectal screenings before age 45, receive more frequent screenings or receive a specific type of screening test (such as a colonoscopy instead of a stool-based test). Take the time to discuss your options with your physician to determine the best course of action for your personal health.

Common symptoms of rectal cancer 

The most common symptoms of rectal cancer include:

  • Changes in the appearance or consistency of stool (including the presence of blood)
  • Passing stool more frequently than usual
  • An inability to fully empty the bowels
  • Pain when passing stool
  • Diarrhea and/or constipation
  • Pain in the rectum

Anyone who experiences these unusual health changes should promptly make an appointment with a physician. While cancer is not always the underlying cause, it is still important to determine the reason for the unusual changes as quickly as possible.

What happens when rectal cancer spreads?

Sometimes, if a tumor spreads beyond its original location, it can cause additional rectal cancer symptoms. For instance, if cancer spreads to higher sections of the digestive tract, it can cause bloating and abdominal pain. Rectal cancer can also spread to the liver, lungs, abdominal lining (peritoneum) or brain. Metastatic rectal cancer can cause:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Bloody or unusual stools
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Anemia or a low hemoglobin count
  • Jaundice

What causes rectal cancer?

For the moment, the underlying cause of rectal cancer is unclear. However, several risk factors have been identified that may raise one’s chances of getting this cancer. The risk factors include:

  • Having a family history of colorectal cancer
  • Being a smoker
  • Being older
  • Having inflammatory bowel disease
  • Having a history of polyps or colorectal cancer
  • Engaging in a diet high in fats and/or processed meat
  • Being overweight

Moffitt Cancer Center’s approach to rectal cancer treatment

At Moffitt Cancer Center, we understand that it can be uncomfortable to discuss bowel-related symptoms with a medical professional, but we make it simple and convenient for patients to get answers to their important health care questions. We offer a complete range of diagnostic and therapeutic services in a single, convenient location. The rectal cancer specialists in our Gastrointestinal Oncology Program evaluate, diagnose and treat patients with rectal cancer. Our patients benefit from our unique, individualized approach to care and having access to a wide range of specialists—from medical oncologists to radiologists, pathologists and more. Plus, Moffitt is a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Care Center, a designation we earned through our commitment to cancer research and treatment.

To discuss your symptoms with an oncologist who specializes in rectal cancer, request a consultation at Moffitt Cancer Center by calling 1-888-663-3488 or submitting a new patient registration form online. We provide patients with the rapid care they deserve and can start treatment as soon as possible for the best outcome.