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Rectal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)

Patient Version
Last Modified: 05/12/2014

Stages of Rectal Cancer



After rectal cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the rectum or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out whether cancer has spread within the rectum or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • Chest x-ray : An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.

  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the abdomen, pelvis, or chest, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).

  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.

  • Endorectal ultrasound : A procedure used to examine the rectum and nearby organs. An ultrasound transducer (probe) is inserted into the rectum and used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The doctor can identify tumors by looking at the sonogram. This procedure is also called transrectal ultrasound.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.

Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.

When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.

  • Lymph system. The cancer gets into the lymph system, travels through the lymph vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer gets into the blood, travels through the blood vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.

The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if rectal cancer spreads to the lung, the cancer cells in the lung are actually rectal cancer cells. The disease is metastatic rectal cancer, not lung cancer.

The following stages are used for rectal cancer:

Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ)

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Stage 0 colon/rectal carcinoma in situ; shows a cross-section of the colon/rectum. An inset shows the layers of the colon/rectum wall with abnormal cells in the mucosa layer. Also shown are the submucosa, muscle layers, serosa, a blood vessel, and lymph nodes.
Stage 0 (rectal carcinoma in situ). Abnormal cells are shown in the mucosa of the rectum wall.

In stage 0, abnormal cells are found in the mucosa (innermost layer) of the rectum wall. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ.

Stage I

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Stage I colorectal cancer; shows a cross-section of the colon/rectum. An inset shows the layers of the colon/rectum wall with cancer in the mucosa, submucosa, and muscle layers. Also shown are the serosa, a blood vessel, and lymph nodes.
Stage I rectal cancer. Cancer has spread from the mucosa of the rectum wall to the muscle layer.

In stage I, cancer has formed in the mucosa (innermost layer) of the rectum wall and has spread to the submucosa (layer of tissue under the mucosa). Cancer may have spread to the muscle layer of the rectum wall.

Stage II

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Stage II colorectal cancer; shows a cross-section of the colon/rectum and a three-panel inset. Each panel shows the layers of the colon/rectum wall: mucosa, submucosa, muscle layers, and serosa. Also shown are a blood vessel and lymph nodes. First panel shows stage IIA with cancer in the mucosa, submucosa, muscle layers, and serosa. Second panel shows stage IIB with cancer in all layers and spreading through the serosa. Third panel shows stage IIC with cancer spreading to nearby organs.
Stage II rectal cancer. In stage IIA, cancer has spread through the muscle layer of the rectum wall to the serosa. In stage IIB, cancer has spread through the serosa but has not spread to nearby organs. In stage IIC, cancer has spread through the serosa to nearby organs.

Stage II rectal cancer is divided into stage IIA, stage IIB, and stage IIC.

  • Stage IIA: Cancer has spread through the muscle layer of the rectum wall to the serosa (outermost layer) of the rectum wall.
  • Stage IIB: Cancer has spread through the serosa (outermost layer) of the rectum wall but has not spread to nearby organs.
  • Stage IIC: Cancer has spread through the serosa (outermost layer) of the rectum wall to nearby organs.

Stage III

Stage III rectal cancer is divided into stage IIIA, stage IIIB, and stage IIIC.

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Stage IIIA colorectal cancer; shows a cross-section of the colon/rectum and a two-panel inset. Each panel shows the layers of the colon/rectum wall: mucosa, submucosa, muscle layers, and serosa. Also shown are a blood vessel and lymph nodes. First panel shows cancer in the mucosa, submucosa, muscle layers, and 2 lymph nodes. Second panel  shows cancer in the mucosa, submucosa, and 5 lymph nodes.
Stage IIIA rectal cancer. Cancer may have spread through the mucosa of the rectum wall to the submucosa and muscle layer, and has spread to one to three nearby lymph nodes or tissues near the lymph nodes. OR, cancer has spread through the mucosa to the submucosa and four to six nearby lymph nodes.

In stage IIIA:

  • Cancer may have spread through the mucosa (innermost layer) of the rectum wall to the submucosa (layer of tissue under the mucosa) and may have spread to the muscle layer of the rectum wall. Cancer has spread to at least one but not more than 3 nearby lymph nodes or cancer cells have formed in tissues near the lymph nodes; or
  • Cancer has spread through the mucosa (innermost layer) of the rectum wall to the submucosa (layer of tissue under the mucosa). Cancer has spread to at least 4 but not more than 6 nearby lymph nodes.
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Stage IIIB colorectal cancer; shows a cross-section of the colon/rectum and a two-panel inset. Each panel shows the layers of the colon/rectum wall: mucosa, submucosa, muscle layers, and serosa. Also shown are a blood vessel and lymph nodes. First panel shows cancer in all layers, spreading through the serosa, and in 3 lymph nodes. Second panel shows cancer in all layers and in 5 lymph nodes. Third panel shows cancer in the mucosa, submucosa, muscle layers, and 7 lymph nodes.
Stage IIIB rectal cancer. Cancer has spread through the muscle layer of the rectum wall to the serosa or has spread through the serosa but not to nearby organs; cancer has spread to one to three nearby lymph nodes or to tissues near the lymph nodes. OR, cancer has spread to the muscle layer or to the serosa, and to four to six nearby lymph nodes. OR, cancer has spread through the mucosa to the submucosa and may have spread to the muscle layer; cancer has spread to seven or more nearby lymph nodes.

In stage IIIB:

  • Cancer has spread through the muscle layer of the rectum wall to the serosa (outermost layer) of the rectum wall or has spread through the serosa but not to nearby organs. Cancer has spread to at least one but not more than 3 nearby lymph nodes or cancer cells have formed in tissues near the lymph nodes; or
  • Cancer has spread to the muscle layer of the rectum wall or to the serosa (outermost layer) of the rectum wall. Cancer has spread to at least 4 but not more than 6 nearby lymph nodes; or
  • Cancer has spread through the mucosa (innermost layer) of the rectum wall to the submucosa (layer of tissue under the mucosa) and may have spread to the muscle layer of the rectum wall. Cancer has spread to 7 or more nearby lymph nodes.
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Stage IIIC colorectal cancer; shows a cross-section of the colon/rectum wall and a three-panel inset. Each panel shows the layers of the colon/rectum wall: mucosa, submucosa, muscle layers, and serosa. Also shown are a blood vessel and lymph nodes. First panel shows cancer in all layers, spreading through the serosa, and in 4 lymph nodes. Second panel shows cancer in all layers and in 7 lymph nodes. Third panel shows cancer in all layers, spreading through the serosa, in 2 lymph nodes, and spreading to nearby organs.
Stage IIIC rectal cancer. Cancer has spread through the serosa of the rectum wall but not to nearby organs; cancer has spread to four to six nearby lymph nodes. OR, cancer has spread through the muscle layer to the serosa or has spread through the serosa but not to nearby organs; cancer has spread to seven or more nearby lymph nodes. OR, cancer has spread through the serosa to nearby organs and to one or more nearby lymph nodes or to tissues near the lymph nodes.

In stage IIIC:

  • Cancer has spread through the serosa (outermost layer) of the rectum wall but has not spread to nearby organs. Cancer has spread to at least 4 but not more than 6 nearby lymph nodes; or
  • Cancer has spread through the muscle layer of the rectum wall to the serosa (outermost layer) of the rectum wall or has spread through the serosa but has not spread to nearby organs. Cancer has spread to 7 or more nearby lymph nodes; or
  • Cancer has spread through the serosa (outermost layer) of the rectum wall and has spread to nearby organs. Cancer has spread to one or more nearby lymph nodes or cancer cells have formed in tissues near the lymph nodes.

Stage IV

Stage IV rectal cancer is divided into stage IVA and stage IVB.

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Stage IV rectal cancer; drawing shows other parts of the body where rectal cancer may spread, including lymph nodes, lung, liver, abdominal wall, and ovary. Inset shows cancer spreading through the blood and lymph nodes to other parts of the body.
Stage IV rectal cancer. The cancer has spread through the blood and lymph nodes to other parts of the body, such as the lung, liver, abdominal wall, or ovary.
  • Stage IVA: Cancer may have spread through the rectum wall and may have spread to nearby organs or lymph nodes. Cancer has spread to one organ that is not near the rectum, such as the liver, lung, or ovary, or to a distant lymph node.
  • Stage IVB: Cancer may have spread through the rectum wall and may have spread to nearby organs or lymph nodes. Cancer has spread to more than one organ that is not near the rectum or into the lining of the abdominal wall.