During the early stages of rectal cancer, it is unlikely that you will experience symptoms. That’s why it’s important to proactively prevent it by making healthy lifestyle choices and getting regular rectal cancer screenings.
At MedStar Health, our colorectal specialists are experts in diagnosing and treating rectal cancer because we see a high number of patients every year. Seeing such a high volume of cases is proven to result in better outcomes, like higher survival rates and a lower risk of needing a colostomy.
An Accurate Diagnosis Leads to More Effective Treatment
We believe an accurate diagnosis is the most important step to getting treatment that will give you the best results and the highest quality of life.
Screenings allow your doctor to see the inside of the rectum—and the colon—during a procedure called a colonoscopy. If something unusual is found, our team of experts move quickly to find out if it is or isn’t cancer.
There are a variety of tests that your doctor may use to confirm your diagnosis and understand the size and location of your rectal tumor, as well as if it has spread, or metastasized. These may include:
- Physical exam: Your doctor will review your medical history and symptoms. They’ll also examine your body for anything abnormal. This may include a digital rectal exam (DRE) where your doctor will use a gloved finger to feel for anything unusual in the rectum.
- Colonoscopy: A colonoscopy may be used as both a screening and a diagnostic procedure because it allows your doctor to view the inside of your rectum. During a colonoscopy, your doctor can see polyps or other signs that cancer is developing.
- Biopsy: Your doctor will take a small sampling of suspicious tissue from your rectum using a procedure called a biopsy. This is the most definitive way to find out if your tumor is cancerous or not.
- Proctoscopy: If your doctor suspects cancer, they may use a proctoscope to look inside the rectum. During a proctoscopy, your doctor will insert a thin, lighted tube with a camera into the rectum. This allows them to identify the location and size of your tumor.
- Imaging: Your doctor may use a combination of x-ray, computed tomography scans (CT scans), or ultrasound to take pictures of the inside of your body. This allows them to see if the tumor has spread to other parts of the body.
- Blood tests: Your doctor may use various blood tests to:
- Look for blood in your stool that may not be otherwise visible
- Measure the types of cells in your blood
- Identify tumor markers found in blood
- Check your liver function
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As part of your diagnosis, your doctors will evaluate the stage of your cancer, or how much it has grown and spread. Your stage will determine what kind of treatment is necessary to remove your cancerous tumor and prevent it from coming back.
The staging system is complex and indicates:
- The tumor size (T)
- How much it is affecting the lymph nodes (N)
- How far it has spread to other parts of the body (M)
Your doctor will take into account all three factors to describe your cancer on a scaled stage of zero to four. The higher the number, the more your cancer has progressed and the harder it is to treat.
For example, the following system is used to describes the size of the tumor (T):
- T - There are abnormal cells in the innermost rectum lining. This is the earliest possible sign of cancer and is highly treatable.
- T 1 - The tumor has grown beyond the inner lining of the rectum. However, it’s still contained in the rectum and has not spread to nearby lymph nodes.
- T 2 - Cancer has expanded to the outer layer of the rectum but has not spread to the lymph nodes.
- T 3 - Cancer has grown through the rectum wall and has reached one or more lymph nodes.
- T 4 - Cancer has spread to other vital organs in the body, such as the lungs. There may also be cancer in the lymph nodes.
It’s Always Good to Get a Second Opinion
Once you have a diagnosis, it may be beneficial to ask another doctor to look at your case. Getting a second opinion can ensure that you receive the most accurate diagnosis possible and you may find that there are additional treatment options that you didn’t know were available.
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MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center
The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Cancer Institute
9103 Franklin Square Drive
Baltimore, MD 21237
MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital
5601 Loch Raven Boulevard
Baltimore, MD 21239
MedStar Harbor Hospital
The Cancer Center
3001 South Hanover St.
Baltimore, MD 21225
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