Treatment for Rectal Cancer

The most effective way to treat rectal cancer is often a combination of treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. The rectal cancer experts at Memorial Sloan Kettering work together to customize a plan of care that fits your unique needs.

Surgery isn’t always the best treatment for advanced rectal cancer that has spread to other organs. MSK researchers have demonstrated that most patients in this situation don’t need immediate surgery to remove the primary rectal tumor, as long as it’s not causing bowel problems. 

Chemotherapy may actually be a better option in special circumstances, such as if your cancer has spread to distant sites within your body. Moving straight to chemotherapy has two potential benefits: 

  • You can avoid the risk of surgical complications.
  • You can start cancer treatment throughout your entire body without delay. 

Learn more about treatment options for rectal cancer.


Surgery is the most common treatment for many stages of rectal cancer. Depending on your tumor, we may use other therapies, such as radiation and chemotherapy, to shrink it before  operating. 

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is used mainly to shrink your tumor before surgery and to prevent your tumor from regrowing after surgery. In some patients, radiation can be delivered instead of surgery.


Chemotherapy may be used in combination with radiation before surgery to shrink your tumor or after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells.