Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States for men and women. But in recent years, new advancements in early detection and treating colorectal cancer show a promising future for patients and their families. Experts provide an overview of what you can look forward to in the field of colorectal cancer treatment.

Early detection

The death rate of colorectal cancer has been dropping for decades, according to the American Cancer Society. In addition to new and improved colon cancer treatments, early detection is a big reason for this.

Late-stage metastatic colon cancer, or cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, is much harder to treat and to survive. Those diagnosed with stage 4 cancer have a five-year relative survival rate of about 11 percent, meaning that 11 out of 100 people who have stage 4 colon cancer are still alive after 5 years.

In comparison, those diagnosed with stage 1 cancer have a five-year relative survival rate of about 92 percent.

There are a number of tests available today that can help detect early signs of colon cancer or even a predisposition to developing it. These include:

Routine screening

Routine screenings including colonoscopies are key in detecting early stage colon cancer. Generally, it’s recommended that you get your first colonoscopy at 50 years old, and then every 10 years after. But if you have a family history of colon cancer or other signs that indicate a higher risk for it, your doctor may recommend more frequent screenings starting from a younger age.

Colon cancer screenings are important because they allow doctors to look inside your colon to see if anything looks wrong. For example, if your doctor sees polyps, or abnormal growths, inside your colon, they can remove them and monitor you closely to make sure any polyps you have aren’t cancerous. If the tissue is already cancerous, there’s a higher chance of stopping cancer growth before it becomes metastatic.

In addition to a colonoscopy, you may need other screening tests, including:

DNA testing

About 5 to 10 percent of colon cancer cases are a result of a genetic mutation passed down from parents to children. DNA testing is available that can help doctors learn whether you have a higher risk of developing colon cancer. This testing involves taking a sample of tissue from your blood or a polyp, or from a tumor if you’ve already been diagnosed with colon cancer.

Minimally invasive surgery

Surgical techniques have continued to evolve for colon cancer treatments in the last couple of decades, as surgeons have developed new methods and learned more about what to remove. For example, research suggests that removing enough lymph nodes during colorectal cancer surgery helps increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.

Recent advancements in minimally invasive surgery to remove polyps or cancerous tissue mean patients experience less pain and a shorter recovery period, while surgeons enjoy more precision. Laparoscopic surgery is an example: Your surgeon makes a few small incisions in your abdomen through which they insert a little camera and surgical instruments.

Today, robotic surgery is even being used for colorectal cancer surgery. It involves use of robotic arms to perform the surgery. This new technique is still being studied for its efficacy.

“Many patients now go home in one or two days, compared to five to 10 days 20 years ago [with minimally invasive surgery] ... so it’s hugely different,” says Dr. Conor Delaney, chairman of the Digestive Disease and Surgery Institute at Cleveland Clinic. “There are no drawbacks, but this minimally invasive surgery requires an expert surgeon and a well-trained surgical team.”

Targeted therapy

In recent years, targeted therapy has been used together with or instead of chemotherapy. Unlike chemo drugs, which destroy not only cancerous tissue but also healthy surrounding tissue, targeted therapy drugs treat cancer cells only. Additionally, they’re usually reserved for people with advanced colon cancer.

Researchers are still studying the benefits of targeted therapy drugs, as they don’t work well for everyone. They can also be very expensive and cause their own set of side effects. Your cancer team should speak with you about the potential benefits and drawbacks of using targeted therapy drugs. Those commonly used today include:

  • bevacizumab (Avastin)
  • cetuximab (Erbitux)
  • panitumumab (Vectibix)
  • ramucirumab (Cyramza)
  • regorafenib (Stivarga)
  • ziv-aflibercept (Zaltrap)

Immunotherapy

Perhaps the most recent innovation in colon cancer treatment involves immunotherapy, which uses your body’s immune system to fight cancer. For example, a colon cancer vaccine to boost immune system response to cancer is being developed. But most immunotherapies for colon cancer are still in clinical trials.

And as for what’s next in colon cancer treatment, Dr. Michael Kane, medical director of Community Oncology for Atlantic Health System and founder of Atlantic Medical Oncology, says there is much more work to do, but the future looks promising.

“The sequencing of the human genome has begun to yield great promise in earlier diagnosis and more targeted treatment of many types of malignancies, including colon cancer.

“Germline genetic testing in selected populations, which can identify an inherited predisposition to the development of colon and rectal cancer, has great potential to shift the curve to a much earlier stage at diagnosis and thereby improve cure rates.

“Next-generation sequencing of colon and rectal tumors promise the ability to match an individual patient with a specific ‘cocktail’ of treatment that can lead to improved efficacy and minimize unwanted toxicities. The development of more complementary medicine trials to expand our treatment approaches should be encouraged.”