Colon Cancer Treatment

Medically reviewed by Monica Bien, PA-C on August 12, 2016Written by MaryAnn DePietro

colon cancer treatment

Overview

There are multiple treatments for colon cancer. Doctors often use a combination of therapies to treat the disease. Your recommended treatment depends on the stage of your cancer and your overall health. For example, stage 1 colon cancer may not be treated the same way as stage 4 colon cancer.

Other factors may also influence your recommended treatment. This includes your ability to tolerate a certain therapy or whether your cancer has a high risk of coming back.

Keep reading to learn about the most common treatments available for colon cancer.

Surgery

Surgery is often recommended to treat both early and advanced colon cancer. The type and extent of the surgical technique will vary. Extent of surgery may range from removing a small tumor on the wall of the colon to removing portions of the colon and regional lymph nodes.

Surgical options include the following:

Local excision

This type of surgery may be used to treat early-stage colon cancer. It involves removing the cancer without having to remove a part of the colon. The procedure is often performed using laparoscopic surgery.

During laparoscopic surgery for colon cancer, a surgeon will make small cuts or incisions on the skin of the abdomen. Using special instruments with a small camera attached, the surgeon inserts the camera through the small cuts to view the colon and remove the tumor. The surgeon may also remove some lymph nodes near the tumor to see if cancer cells are present.

Colectomy

A procedure known as a colectomy may be used to remove some or all of the colon, depending on the extent of the cancer. If part of your colon needs to be removed, the surgeon will cut out the cancerous section. They will also remove a little healthy tissue on both sides of the tumor. The surgeon will then reattach the open ends of your colon.

According to the American Cancer Society, one-fourth to one-third of the colon is often removed during a colectomy. The size of the tumor and location can affect how much of the colon needs to be removed. Depending on the extent of the surgery, the procedure may be performed laparoscopically or through open surgery. Open surgery involves making a larger cut in the abdomen.

Colostomy

In some instances, the two sections of the colon cannot be reattached after the cancer is removed. If this is the case, a colostomy will usually be performed. A colostomy involves creating an opening called a stoma in the abdominal skin and connecting the top part of the colon. Colostomies are often only temporary to give the colon time to heal. In some cases, the procedure can be reversed.

In addition to your cancer stage, other factors may play a role in what type of surgical procedure is performed. These factors include:

  • your age
  • your health
  • your weight
  • whether the cancer has spread to other structures, organs, or lymph nodes

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is another common treatment for colon cancer. Chemotherapy involves taking medications designed to kill the cancer cells. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are multiple drugs used to treat colon cancer. Your chemotherapy regimen for colon cancer will depend on the extent or stage of your disease. The medications are usually given intravenously, but some drugs are in pill form.

Chemotherapy can be used before or after surgery to treat colon cancer. Before surgery, it’s used to shrink the cancer and make surgery easier. After colon cancer surgery, it’s used to kill any remaining cancer cells and decrease the chances of your cancer coming back. In some cases, such as in advanced cancer when the disease has spread beyond the colon, chemotherapy may be the primary treatment and used only to help reduce symptoms and prolong life. In these cases, it will not likely be a curative treatment.

The drugs given during chemotherapy work by killing cancer cells, but the medications don’t just attack cancer cells. The drugs also attack healthy cells. This is why side effects can occur. Common side effects include:

  • fatigue
  • hair loss
  • diarrhea
  • neuropathy
  • nausea

There are also medications available to help you deal with side effects and better tolerate chemotherapy. Remember that everyone will experience chemotherapy differently. Side effects can range from mild to severe.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays or radioactive substances to destroy the DNA of cancer cells. According to the Colorectal Cancer Coalition, radiation therapy is not commonly used in early-stage colon cancer. It may be recommended in instances where tumors have spread to other organs. Radiation therapy is also sometimes prescribed to decrease symptoms of colon cancer.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy may also be an option for some people. This type of therapy is similar to chemotherapy in that it involves taking certain medications. However, the drugs work differently than chemotherapy.

Typically, chemotherapy works by killing cells that multiply quickly, such as cancer cells. But along with cancer cells, other fast-multiplying cells that aren’t cancerous are also destroyed. Since healthy cells are also affected, side effects from chemotherapy can be serious and may even be life-threatening.

Targeted therapies don’t attack all cells. Instead, these drugs work by targeting specific parts of the cancer cells. For example, some drugs attack specific proteins in cancer cells to prevent the cell from growing. Targeted therapy may also prevent new blood vessels from forming. This cuts off the blood supply to the cancer, inhibits growth, and leads to cancer cell death.

Clinical trials

Clinical trials for colon cancer are research studies that evaluate the effectiveness of new treatments for colon cancer. Clinical trials for colon cancer may involve chemotherapy, targeted therapies, radiation, or surgery. Although the treatments aren’t approved by the FDA, they are monitored by doctors.

In some cases, clinical trials may be an option if other treatments have not cured your cancer. Not all patients will qualify for colon cancer clinical trials. If you’re interested in a colon cancer clinical trial, your medical oncologist can provide you with more information and help you locate trials.

Talking with your doctor and healthcare team is the first step in deciding which treatment, or combination of treatments, is right for you.

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