Consumer Health: Rectal cancer — risk factors, prevention and treatment

a middle-aged African American couple smiling and hugging

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, which makes this a good time to learn more about rectal cancer, including risk factors, prevention and treatment.

Colon cancer and rectal cancer often are referred to together as colorectal cancer. Most cases of colon cancer begin as small, noncancerous clumps of cells called polyps. Over time, some of these polyps can become colon cancers. For most rectal cancers, the cause is unclear.

Factors that may increase your risk of rectal cancer are the same as those that increase the risk of colon cancer, including:

  • Older age. Colorectal cancer can be diagnosed at any age, but most people with this type of cancer are older than 50.
  • African American descent. People of African ancestry born in the U.S. have a greater risk of colorectal cancer than people of European ancestry.
  • A personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps, or a family history of colorectal cancer.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes or obesity.
  • Inherited syndromes that increase rectal cancer risk, including familial adenomatous polyposis and Lynch syndrome.
  • Eating a diet low in vegetables and high in red meat, drinking alcohol, or smoking.
  • Too little exercise.
  • Radiation therapy for previous cancer.

Lifestyle changes that may reduce your risk of rectal cancer include exercising most days of the week; maintaining a healthy weight; eating a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains; stopping smoking; and drinking alcohol in moderation, if at all.

Treatment for rectal cancer often involves a combination of therapies. When possible, surgery is performed to remove the cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that remain and reduce the risk that cancer will return. If the cancer can’t be removed completely without hurting nearby organs and structures, your health care provider may recommend a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy as your initial treatment. These combined treatments may shrink the cancer and make it easier to remove during surgery.

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