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Rectal Cancer

Rectal cancer occurs when malignant cells form in the rectum, the last 8 to 10 inches of the large intestine. Often, rectal cancer develops when benign polyps become cancerous.

If rectal cancer is detected early, the disease is easily curable. Regular screenings for polyps beginning at age 50 are crucial to catching the disease in its earliest stages.

Risk factors

The exact cause of rectal cancer is unknown, but there are several risk factors for the disease:

  • Your age
Most cases of rectal cancer are seen in patients who are 45 or older.
  • Other conditions
If you have had polyps or cancers of the ovary, endometrium or breast, your risk of rectal cancer increases. If you have had radiation treatment for prostate or cervical cancer, your risk is increased. If you have had colon or rectal cancer before, your risk of a recurrence is also greater.
Patients who have either of these types of inflammatory bowel disease involving the rectum are at increased risk for developing rectal cancer.
  • Genetics

If a close relative—such as a mother, father, brother, sister or child—has had rectal or colon cancer, you are at greater risk.


A few symptoms can indicate possible rectal cancer, but not all colorectal cancer patients have symptoms. The signs of rectal cancer can be similar to those for other conditions. See your physician if you are experiencing the following:

  • Any change in bowel habits—diarrhea, constipation, narrow stools or a feeling that the bowels are not completely emptying—can indicate a problem
  • Bright or dark red blood in the stool or toilet bowl
  • Abdominal discomfort, such as frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness or cramps
  • Changes in appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained fatigue


The colorectal surgeons at UC Irvine Health are unmatched in their expertise at diagnosing and treating cancer of the rectum. As a university medical center, our physicians have access to state-of-the-art diagnostic techniques as well as the latest treatments and therapies.

Several tests are needed to accurately diagnose rectal cancer, including:

  • Digital rectal exam (DRE)

In this exam, the physician checks for abnormalities in the lower half of the rectum.

  • X-rays

Imaging the gastrointestinal tract can reveal abnormalities that can't be felt in a physical exam.

  • Fecal occult blood test

This test can detect the presence of microscopic (occult) blood cells in the stool. Invisible blood in the stool is often the first—and only—warning sign of rectal cancer.

  • Colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy

Both procedures are performed to see inside the rectum and colon. Any polyps detected are removed for microscopic examination.

View a video of a colonoscopy procedure ›


Because we are a university medical center, rectal cancer treatment at UC Irvine Health is delivered by an experienced team of colorectal specialists, who ground their treatments in the latest research. Few medical centers in the region offer this level of care.

After diagnosis, your physician discusses treatment options, which generally depend on the location, size and stage of the tumor. Treatment may include one, or a combination of, the following:

  • Surgery

An operation to remove the tumor is the primary treatment for rectal cancer at any stage. At UC Irvine Health, we use minimally invasive approaches, including laparoscopic, robot-assisted and transanal endoscopic microsurgery. We also specialize in function- and sphincter-preserving approaches.

  • Radiation

Radiation involves the use of high energy X-rays to destroy cancer cells.

  • Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to inhibit the growth of cancer cells, by either killing them or preventing them from dividing further.

  • Targeted therapy

In this type of therapy, drugs and other substances are used to attack specific cancer cells, leaving normal cells alone.

  • Clinical trials

As the only university medical center in Orange County, we are continuously running clinical trials that give our patients access to innovative new drugs and therapies long before they are available to the general public.

View our current clinical trials ›

Questions? Call us anytime at 888-717-4463.

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