What Happens When Rectal Cancer Spreads?

Rectal cancer, which develops in the last part of the large intestine, may take many years to grow from a benign polyp into a cancerous tumor. And, even when the cancer is in its early stages, there are often no noticeable symptoms. If rectal cancer continues to go undetected, it may advance and spread to other areas of the body. When this occurs, it is considered stage 4 or metastatic rectal cancer.

In many cases, advanced-stage rectal cancer spreads to the liver or lungs. It may also spread to the peritoneum (abdominal lining) or brain. Metastatic rectal cancer can produce a number of symptoms, including:

  • Pain in the rectum
  • Bloody or unusual stool
  • Changes in bowel movements
  • Pain when passing stool
  • Diarrhea and/or constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

Additionally, if the cancer has spread to the liver, it may cause jaundice, abdominal bloating or nausea. If it has spread to the lungs, it may cause shortness of breath, chest pain, difficulty breathing or a persistent cough. Rectal cancer may also spread to other areas of the body, each of which can produce a unique set of symptoms.

How can I prevent rectal cancer from spreading?

A colonoscopy or other screening method is the best option for detecting rectal cancer early, before it has the chance to spread to other areas. For individuals at average risk and over age 50, a colonoscopy is generally recommended every 10 years.

How can I get treatment for rectal cancer that has spread?

Moffitt Cancer Center offers comprehensive diagnostic, treatment and supportive care services for individuals with metastatic rectal cancer. If you are experiencing symptoms that you would like to have evaluated or have already been diagnosed, we welcome you to request an appointment at Moffitt and learn more about your treatment options. You can do so with or without a referral by filling out a new patient registration form or calling 1-888-663-3488.