What is rectal cancer?
Rectal cancer refers to the uncontrolled growth of cells in the rectum, which is the last part of the large bowel close to the anus. Rectal cancer may occur in isolation or along with cancer of the colon (the longest part of the large bowel). Cancer of the rectum and colon is called colorectal cancer. The rectum is around six inch long. It serves the purpose of storing the stools until a person has a bowel movement. Rectal cancer may develop gradually over several years. The cancer usually starts as a small growth or mass, called a rectal polyp, confined to the inner lining of the rectum. Some of the rectal polyps when left untreated may grow into rectal cancer. Untreated rectal cancer can spread over time to involve other organs, particularly the liver and lungs.
Can you feel rectal cancer?
Rectal cancer may not cause any symptoms, especially in its initial stages. In many people, the symptoms are overlooked because they are mild or unalarming. By the time any significant symptoms appear, the cancer is generally in its advanced stage.
Some of the symptoms that may indicate rectal cancer are:
- A change in bowel habits, such as constipation, diarrhea, or narrow stools lasting for more than a few days.
- Bleeding through the rectum, which may be blood in stools or blood-stained underwear.
- A continuous urge to have a bowel movement.
- Feeling that the bowel is partially empty.
- Increased lethargy and weakness.
- Reduced exercise capacity.
- Unintended weight loss.
- Abdominal cramps, aches, or pain that do not go away.
These symptoms do not necessarily mean that a person has rectal cancer. However, consulting a doctor early can help in timely diagnosis and treatment. Bleeding through the rectum must be urgently brought to the physician’s attention. Premenstrual women should not ignore cramps that last longer than usual by confusing them with menstrual cramps. Rectal bleeding or bloating may be confused for periods or spotting between the periods. Any unusual symptoms must be brought to a doctor’s attention.
What are the risks for rectal cancer?
Certain conditions may increase the risk for rectal cancer. These include:
- Older age: Around 90% of rectal cancers occur in people who are 50 years or older. The risk of getting rectal cancer increases with age. The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for colorectal cancer in all adults between ages 50-75 years. People with additional risk factors may consult their physician to get screened at an early age. Screening after 75 years of age may be done if a person wishes to after consulting a doctor.
- Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD): These include people suffering from Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
- A significant personal or family history: This includes people who themselves had or their first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, or children) had rectal polyps or cancer.
- Certain genetic conditions: These include conditions, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome.
Other factors that may raise rectal cancer risk include: