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Treatment for Colorectal Cancer

Specific treatment for colorectal cancer will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent and location of the disease
  • Results of certain lab tests 
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of this disease
  • Your opinion or preference

After the colorectal cancer is diagnosed and staged, your doctor will recommend a treatment plan. Treatment may include:

  • Colon surgery. Often, the primary treatment for colorectal cancer is an operation, in which the cancer and a length of normal tissue on either side of the cancer are removed, as well as the nearby lymph nodes.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and to shrink tumors. There are two ways to deliver radiation therapy, including the following:
    • External radiation (external beam therapy). A treatment that precisely sends high levels of radiation directly to the cancer cells. The machine is controlled by the radiation therapist. Since radiation is used to kill cancer cells and to shrink tumors, special shields may be used to protect the tissue surrounding the treatment area. Radiation treatments are painless and usually last a few minutes.
    • Internal radiation (brachytherapy, implant radiation). Radiation is given inside the body as close to the cancer as possible. Radioactive material is placed next to or directly into the cancer, which limits the effects of surrounding healthy tissues. Some of the radioactive implants are called seeds or capsules.

      Internal radiation involves giving a higher dose of radiation in a shorter time span than with external radiation. Some internal radiation treatments stay in the body temporarily. Other internal treatments stay in the body permanently, though the radioactive substance loses its radiation within a short period of time. In some cases, both internal and external radiation therapies are used.
  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs to treat cancerous cells. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell's ability to grow or reproduce. Different groups of drugs work in different ways to fight cancer cells. The oncologist will recommend a treatment plan for each individual. Studies have shown that chemotherapy after surgery may increase the survival rate for patients with some stages of colon cancer. It can also be helpful before or after surgery for some stages of rectal cancer. Chemotherapy can also help slow the growth or relieve symptoms of advanced cancer.

Targeted therapy. Newer medications called targeted therapies may be used along with chemotherapy or sometimes by themselves. For example, some newer medications target proteins that are found more often on cancer cells than on normal cells. These medications have different (and often milder) side effects than standard chemotherapy medications and may help people some live longer.