Colorectal Cancer: Treatment for Rectal Cancer

Pictured: Leonard Saltz Leonard Saltz, Acting Chief of Memorial Sloan Kettering's Gastrointestinal Oncology Service, meets with a fellow to discuss treatment options for a patient with rectal cancer.

Rectal cancer is a form of colorectal cancer that occurs in the rectum, the lower six inches of the digestive tract. Rectal cancer is similar to colon cancer in many ways, although there are important differences that affect the way it is treated.

Because rectal cancer occurs within the narrow confines of the pelvis, surgery is often more complex than in colon cancer, and requires special expertise. This area contains the nerves that control sexual and bladder function, so care must be taken to avoid damaging them as much as possible. The rectum is also critical for proper bowel function.


Learn how chemotherapy and radiation therapy can be used to shrink rectal tumors before surgically removing them.


For these reasons, treatment for rectal cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering often involves the use of chemotherapy and radiation therapy (sometimes called chemoradiation) before surgery. These “neoadjuvant” therapies can be used to shrink the tumor before an operation, making it easier to remove. In addition, if your diagnostic tests indicate that you have an advanced cancer that has spread beyond the rectum to the lymph nodes, chemoradiation before surgery reduces the risk of tumor recurrence by destroying microscopic accumulations of cancer cells before they have an opportunity to grow larger.

Neoadjuvant therapy is the standard recommendation for patients with locally advanced rectal cancer and some patients who have low-lying tumors. When followed by surgery and subsequent chemotherapy, this approach has resulted in an overall cure rate of more than 70 percent for patients with rectal cancer and a local recurrence rate of less than 10 percent.1

Because the most effective treatment for rectal cancer often involves several treatment approaches, Memorial Sloan Kettering’s multidisciplinary disease management team works together closely to ensure that you receive the combination that will be most effective for you.

Learn more about our approach to treatment for rectal cancer.

1Preoperative versus postoperative chemoradiotherapy for rectal cancer. Sauer R, Becker H, Hohenberger W, Rödel C, Wittekind C, Fietkau R, Martus P, Tschmelitsch J, Hager E, Hess CF, Karstens JH, Liersch T, Schmidberger H, Raab R; German Rectal Cancer Study Group. N Engl J Med. 2004 Oct 21;351 (17):1731-40 [PubMed Abstract]