Treatment overview for rectal cancer

Treatments used for rectal cancer include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and sometimes targeted therapy. Often, a combination of treatments is used. When chemotherapy and radiotherapy are given together, it is called chemoradiation.

What treatment you have depends on the stage of the cancer and where it is in the rectum. It also depends on your general health and preferences.

It is important that you have the chance to discuss treatments with your doctor. This will help you understand why a particular treatment plan has been suggested, and how the treatment may affect you.


Surgery to remove the cancer is one of the main treatments for rectal cancer. The operation usually involves removing part or all of the rectum, as well as nearby lymph nodes. If the cancer has grown into tissue or organs nearby, the surgeon may remove parts of these too.

Sometimes, surgery is used to help with symptoms rather than cure the cancer. This may be if the cancer is causing a blockage in the bowel.

Occasionally, surgery may be used to remove cancer that has spread to a distant part of the body, such as the liver or lungs. This is called secondary or advanced cancer. We have more information about secondary liver cancer, secondary lung cancer and their treatments.


Radiotherapy or chemoradiation may be given before or after rectal surgery. These treatments help to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back in the rectum, or in the tissues close to it.

Radiotherapy is also sometimes used to relieve symptoms, such as pain or bleeding. This is called palliative radiotherapy.


Sometimes, chemotherapy is given after surgery to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back. This is called adjuvant chemotherapy.

If cancer has spread to the liver or lungs (secondary cancer), chemotherapy may be the main treatment. It is given to shrink the cancer and to control it for as long as possible. Some people with secondary cancer have chemotherapy to shrink the cancer before having an operation to remove it.

Targeted therapies

Targeted therapies are sometimes used on their own or in combination with chemotherapy to control secondary cancer.

Clinical trials

Your cancer specialist may invite you to take part in a clinical trial.

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