You should contact your doctor if you experience the symptoms of rectal cancer. Other non-cancerous conditions may have symptoms similar to rectal cancer, but you need to have your doctor make that determination. Rectal cancer that is diagnosed and treated early is associated with the best outcomes.
Your doctor will review your medical history. It is important to tell your doctor about your risk factors and symptoms. Your doctor will conduct a rectal examination to detect abnormal masses or growths. Your doctor may use other evaluations to help diagnose your condition.
A stool blood test can detect small amounts of blood in your stool. The fecal occult blood test (FOBT) or the fecal immunochemical test (FIT) is commonly used. You will receive a kit and instructions for taking a stool sample at home. The kit is sent to a laboratory for testing. If the test results are positive, your doctor will order a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy to identify the exact cause of bleeding.
A flexible sigmoidoscopy is used to view the rectum and part of the colon for cancer or polyps. A sigmoidscope is a thin tube with a light and viewing instrument. It is about two feet long. The sigmoidscope is placed in the colon, through the rectum. This test can be uncomfortable, but should not be painful.
A colonoscopy is used to view the entire colon. A colonoscope is similar to a sigmoidoscope, but it is much longer. A colonoscope allows a doctor to examine the colon for cancer or polyps. A tissue sample or biopsy may also be taken with the colonoscope. A colonoscopy can be uncomfortable, and you will receive medication to relax you prior to the test.
A lower gastrointestinal (GI) series or barium enema test provides a series of X-ray images of the rectum and large intestine. A barium enema is commonly used to screen for cancer and bowel diseases. Prior to taking X-rays, barium, a chalky substance, and air are used to fill and expand the intestine. The barium reveals the bowel’s shape and position on the X-ray images. A barium enema is an outpatient procedure that is performed at a doctor’s office or a hospital’s radiology department.
If you have rectal cancer, your doctor will assign your cancer a classification stage based on the results of all of your tests. Staging describes the cancer and how it has metastasized. Staging is helpful for treatment planning and recovery prediction.
There is more than one type of staging system for cancer, and you should make sure that you and your doctor are referring to the same one. Generally, lower numbers in a classification system indicate a less serious cancer, and higher numbers indicate a more serious cancer. The stages may be subdivided into grades or classifications that use letters and numbers.