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Radiographics. 2015 Nov-Dec;35(7):2090-107. doi: 10.1148/rg.2015150037.

Anorectal Cancer: Critical Anatomic and Staging Distinctions That Affect Use of Radiation Therapy.

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From the Departments of Radiology (S.A.M., S.H.T., N.H.R., M.H.R.), Radiation Oncology (H.J.M.), and Pathology (L.A.D.), Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, Mass; Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass (H.J.M., C.S.F., L.A.D., S.H.T., N.H.R., M.H.R.); and Departments of Medical Oncology (C.S.F.) and Imaging (S.H.T., N.H.R., M.H.R.), Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Mass.


Although rectal and anal cancers are anatomically close, they are distinct entities with different histologic features, risk factors, staging systems, and treatment pathways. Imaging is at the core of initial clinical staging of these cancers and most commonly includes magnetic resonance imaging for local-regional staging and computed tomography for evaluation of metastatic disease. The details of the primary tumor and involvement of regional lymph nodes are crucial in determining if and how radiation therapy should be used in treatment of these cancers. Unfortunately, available imaging modalities have been shown to have imperfect accuracy for identification of nodal metastases and imaging features other than size. Staging of nonmetastatic rectal cancers is dependent on the depth of invasion (T stage) and the number of involved regional lymph nodes (N stage). Staging of nonmetastatic anal cancers is determined according to the size of the primary mass and the combination of regional nodal sites involved; the number of positive nodes at each site is not a consideration for staging. Patients with T3 rectal tumors and/or involvement of perirectal, mesenteric, and internal iliac lymph nodes receive radiation therapy. Almost all anal cancers warrant use of radiation therapy, but the extent and dose of the radiation fields is altered on the basis of both the size of the primary lesion and the presence and extent of nodal involvement. The radiologist must recognize and report these critical anatomic and staging distinctions, which affect use of radiation therapy in patients with anal and rectal cancers.

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