What are the common signs and symptoms of rectal cancer?

Updated: Apr 06, 2021
  • Author: Burt Cagir, MD, FACS; Chief Editor: N Joseph Espat, MD, MS, FACS  more...
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Bleeding is the most common symptom of rectal cancer, occurring in 60% of patients. However, many rectal cancers produce no symptoms and are discovered during digital or proctoscopic screening examinations.

Other signs and symptoms of rectal cancer may include the following:

  • Change in bowel habits (43%): Often in the form of diarrhea; the caliber of the stool may change; there may be a feeling of incomplete evacuation and tenesmus
  • Occult bleeding (26%): Detected via a fecal occult blood test (FOBT)
  • Abdominal pain (20%): May be colicky and accompanied by bloating
  • Back pain: Usually a late sign caused by a tumor invading or compressing nerve trunks
  • Urinary symptoms: May occur if a tumor invades or compresses the bladder or prostate
  • Malaise (9%)
  • Pelvic pain (5%): Late symptom, usually indicating nerve trunk involvement
  • Emergencies such as peritonitis from perforation (3%) or jaundice, which may occur with liver metastases (< 1%)

See Presentation for more detail.

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