Acute Radiation Colitis in Patients Treated With Short-Term Preoperative Radiotherapy for Rectal Cancer

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The histopathologic features of acute radiation-induced colitis in humans have been described in occasional, >20-year-old studies, but they have not been analyzed in detail. We characterize such findings in 34 patients with rectal cancer who underwent surgery a few days after preoperative irradiation with 25 Gy given over 5–7 days, and we compare the results to the histopathologic features detected in 18 patients treated by a conventional preoperative irradiation protocol consisting of 45 Gy during 5 weeks followed by surgery after a time interval of at least 3 weeks. Short-term preoperative irradiation therapy generally induced severe mucosal inflammation characterized by increased cellularity of the lamina propria, prominent eosinophilic infiltrates, crypt disarray, surface and crypt epithelial damage, nuclear abnormalities, and presence of apoptotic bodies in the crypt epithelium. These histopathologic features were absent or detected only occasionally in the patient group treated according to the long-term preoperative irradiation protocol. Despite acute severe inflammation, none of the patients treated by short-term irradiation developed perioperative complications. These observations indicate that acute radiation colitis may remain clinically silent and resolve spontaneously within a few weeks after irradiation. Given the widening acceptance of short-term preoperative irradiation protocols for rectal cancer, pathologists should be aware of the rather characteristic histologic findings of acute radiation colitis and avoid unnecessary concern of clinicians. The differential diagnosis includes infectious colitis, collagenous and ischemic colitis, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug-associated colitis, and chronic idiopathic inflammatory bowel disease.

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