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Rectal Cancer Causes & Risk Factors

No one knows the exact cause of rectal cancer. It is clear that it is not contagious - no one can catch this disease from another person. Research has shown people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop rectal cancer. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of developing a disease. Risk factors for rectal cancer include:1


Rectal cancer is more likely to occur as people get older. More than 90 percent of people with this disease are diagnosed after age 50.

Rectal polyps:

Polyps are growths on the inner wall of the rectum. They are common in people over age 50. Most polyps are not cancerous, but some polyps (adenomas) can become cancer. Finding and removing polyps may reduce the risk of rectal cancer.

Family history:

Close relatives (parents, brothers, sisters, or children) of a person with a history of rectal cancer are somewhat more likely to develop this disease, especially if the relative had the cancer at a young age. If many close relatives have a history of rectal cancer, the risk is even greater.

Genetic alterations:

Changes in certain genes increase the risk of rectal cancer. These types of rectal cancers are rare but cause the disease to develop at a somewhat younger age. Genetic testing can check for specific genetic changes.

Personal history of cancer:

A person who has already had rectal cancer may develop it a second time. Also, women with a history of cancer of the ovary, uterus, or breast are at a somewhat higher risk of developing rectal cancer.

Ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease:

A person who has had a condition that causes inflammation of the colon (such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease) for many years is at increased risk of developing rectal cancer.


Studies suggest diets high in fat (especially animal fat) and low in calcium, folate, and fiber may increase the risk of rectal cancer.

Cigarette smoking:

A person who smokes cigarettes may be at increased risk of developing polyps and rectal cancer.

Because people who have rectal cancer may develop it a second time, it is important to have regular checkups. If you have rectal cancer, you also may be concerned that your family members may develop the disease. People who think they may be at risk should talk to their doctor. The doctor may be able to suggest ways to reduce the risk and can plan a schedule for checkups.

PN 1002267 Rev A 05/13

  1. General information about rectal cancer. National Cancer Institute. From: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/rectal/Patient/page1#Keypoint3

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