Questions About Cancer? 1-800-4-CANCER

Rectal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)

Health Professional Version

Stage I Rectal Cancer

Standard Treatment Options for Stage I Rectal Cancer

Stage I tumors extend beneath the mucosa into the submucosa (T1) or into, but not through, the bowel muscle wall (T2). Because of its localized nature at presentation, stage I rectal cancer has a high cure rate.

Standard treatment options for stage I rectal cancer include the following:

Surgery with or without chemoradiation therapy

There are three potential options for surgical resection in stage I rectal cancer:

  • Local excision. Local excision is restricted to tumors that are confined to the rectal wall and that do not, on rectal ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging, involve the full thickness of the rectum (i.e., not a T3 tumor). The ideal candidate for local excision has a T1 tumor with well-to-moderate differentiation that occupies less than one-third of the circumference of the bowel wall. Local excision is associated with a higher risk of local and systemic failure and is applicable to only very select patients with T2 tumors. Local transanal or other resection [1,2] with or without perioperative external-beam radiation therapy (EBRT) plus fluorouracil (5-FU) may be indicated.
  • Low-anterior resection. Wide surgical resection and anastomosis are options when an adequate low-anterior resection can be performed with sufficient distal rectum to allow a conventional anastomosis or coloanal anastomosis.
  • Abdominoperineal resection. Wide surgical resection with abdominoperineal resection is used for lesions too distal to permit low-anterior resection.

Patients with tumors that are pathologically T1 may not need postoperative therapy. Patients with tumors that are T2 or greater have lymph node involvement about 20% of the time. Patients may want to consider additional therapy, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy, or wide surgical resection of the rectum.[3] Patients with poor histologic features or positive margins after local excision may consider low-anterior resection or abdominoperineal resection and postoperative treatment as dictated by full surgical staging.

For patients with T1 and T2 tumors, no randomized trials are available to compare local excision with or without postoperative chemoradiation therapy to wide surgical resection (low-anterior resection and abdominoperineal resection).

Evidence (surgery):

  1. Investigators with the Cancer and Leukemia Group B enrolled patients with T1 and T2 rectal adenocarcinomas that were within 10 cm of the dentate line and not more than 4 cm in diameter, and involving not more than 40% of the rectal circumference, onto a prospective protocol, CLB-8984. Patients with T1 tumors received no additional treatment after surgery, whereas patients with T2 tumors were treated with EBRT (54 Gy in 30 fractions, 5 days/week) and 5-FU (500 mg/m2 on days 1 through 2 and days 29 through 31 of radiation therapy).[4]
    • For patients with T1 tumors, at 48 months median follow-up, the 6-year failure-free survival was 83% and OS rate was 87%.
    • For patients with T2 tumors, the 6-year failure-free survival was 71% and the OS rate was 85%.

Current Clinical Trials

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with stage I rectal cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.

General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI Web site.


  1. Bailey HR, Huval WV, Max E, et al.: Local excision of carcinoma of the rectum for cure. Surgery 111 (5): 555-61, 1992. [PUBMED Abstract]
  2. Benson R, Wong CS, Cummings BJ, et al.: Local excision and postoperative radiotherapy for distal rectal cancer. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys 50 (5): 1309-16, 2001. [PUBMED Abstract]
  3. Sitzler PJ, Seow-Choen F, Ho YH, et al.: Lymph node involvement and tumor depth in rectal cancers: an analysis of 805 patients. Dis Colon Rectum 40 (12): 1472-6, 1997. [PUBMED Abstract]
  4. Steele GD Jr, Herndon JE, Bleday R, et al.: Sphincter-sparing treatment for distal rectal adenocarcinoma. Ann Surg Oncol 6 (5): 433-41, 1999 Jul-Aug. [PUBMED Abstract]
  • Updated: January 20, 2015