Treatment for colorectal cancer depends on the cancer stage and the individual’s overall health. A person’s healthcare team will work with them to determine the best route of treatment for their unique circumstance and needs.

Treatments involve invasive and noninvasive options to reduce and remove tumors from a person’s body. These can be local, such as surgery, or systemic. Systemic means that they use the bloodstream to deliver drugs to cancer cells.

This article outlines some treatments for colorectal cancer, as well as how a person can finance their treatment, and how to find support.

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For early-stage colorectal cancer, the goal can be to cure the cancer. In these cases, removing cancer in the colon or rectum and destroying tumors in other parts of the body is possible.

If a cure is not possible, the goal of treatment is to improve a person’s quality of life and comfort by shrinking tumors and slowing their growth for as long as possible.

The first line of treatment for colorectal cancer depends on the stage at which a person receives a diagnosis.

For those who have colon cancer that has not spread to distant parts of the body, surgery is the main treatment option.

The current standard of care and guidelines recommend the removal of polyps and advanced polyps that may have precancerous cells. This can be done during a colonoscopy.

If colon cancer is present, a surgeon will perform surgical resection of the part of the colon with cancer, along with removing lymph nodes. Removing the lymph nodes can help determine if the cancer has spread.

If a person receives a diagnosis in later stages, a doctor will likely recommend systemic medications to shrink the tumors.

A 2020 article notes that the first-line treatment for metastatic colorectal cancer is a combination of chemotherapy and targeted therapies.

Surgery is an effective way to remove tumors from the colon or rectum. Surgeons will often remove some healthy surrounding tissue from the site of the tumor to prevent spreading. This is a surgical resection.

Surgical options to treat colon cancer include:

  • Polypectomy and local excision: This involves removing polyps in the colon or rectum using a wire loop with an electric current running through it. A local excision is a more invasive procedure that uses tools to remove small cancers that are present on the inside lining of the colon. They will also remove a small amount of surrounding healthy tissue.
  • Partial or total colectomy: A surgeon may remove a part of, or all of, the colon.
  • Colostomy: This can be permanent or temporary. If the colon is blocked, a surgeon may create an opening in the large intestine through the abdomen.

To treat rectal cancer, a doctor may also perform a polypectomy or local excision. Other options include:

  • Transanal excision (TAE): A healthcare professional will insert instruments into the rectum via the anus. These tools can then remove some small, early-stage cancers from the rectal wall.
  • Transanal endoscopic microsurgery: A healthcare professional may perform this when a TAE is not an option. A surgeon will insert a magnifying scope through the anus until it reaches the rectum. They will then use tools to remove cancerous tissue from the rectal wall.
  • Low anterior resection: A healthcare professional will remove the part of the rectum that has cancer. They will then reconnect the rectum to the colon.
  • Proctectomy with colo-anal anastomosis: A proctectomy removes a part of, or all of, the rectum. They will then attach the colon to the anus.
  • Abdominoperineal resection: A surgeon removes the anus, rectum, and a part of the colon.
  • Pelvic exenteration: A surgeon may recommend a pelvic exenteration if the cancer has spread to the nearby organs. This surgery involves removing the rectum and nearby organs, such as the prostate, bladder, or uterus.
  • Diverting colostomy: If the rectal cancer is blocking the rectum, a surgeon may remove a part of the rectum with cancer. They will then make a cut above the cancer and attach a stoma to allow waste to leave the body.

Which procedure is best for a person will depend on the stage of their condition, as well as the location of the cancer.

During radiation therapy, a healthcare professional aims high-energy rays directly into the tumor, killing cancer cells.

A doctor is more likely to recommend treating rectal cancer with radiation therapy than colon cancer.

A doctor may use radiation therapy alongside chemotherapy to shrink tumors before or after surgery to prevent cancer from returning.

It can also make surgery easier and more likely to be successful. This is called a neoadjuvant treatment.

A doctor will administer chemotherapy for colorectal cancer at different times throughout a person’s treatment:

  • After surgery: This is called adjuvant chemotherapy and is intended to kill any remaining cancer cells after surgery.
  • Before surgery: A doctor may administer neoadjuvant chemotherapy. This aims to shrink the cancer to make it easier to remove.
  • Advanced cancer: A doctor may administer chemotherapy to treat advanced cancer. This can help to relieve symptoms and increase a person’s life expectancy.

Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is a protein that is responsible for the growth of new blood vessels that help tumors receive nutrients to grow.

Therapeutic medications work by preventing the growth of these blood vessels to tumor sites. Doctors may recommend them alongside chemotherapy.

According to a review from 2020, while these targeted therapy medications see longer survival of people with colorectal cancer, responses vary significantly between individuals.

A doctor will determine if this treatment is suitable for an individual.

Immunotherapy can help to treat more advanced colorectal cancers.

A doctor may prescribe the following immunotherapy medications:

  • PD-1 inhibitors: These include pembrolizumab and nivolumab. They target a protein that is present on the immune system cells called PD-1.
  • CTLA-4 inhibitors: A doctor may prescribe ipilimumab. It blocks CTLA-4, which is another protein present on T cells in the immune system.

A doctor may suggest a combination of the above immunotherapy drugs.

A doctor may suggest ablation or embolization for:

  • colorectal cancer that has spread to distant parts of the body
  • those with metastatic tumors that return after surgery
  • colorectal cancer that is not able to be treated with surgery

Ablation involves destroying tumors instead of removing them. A healthcare professional may perform the following techniques using a needle-like probe that they insert into the tumor:

  • radiofrequency ablation, which uses high-energy radiowaves
  • microwave ablation, which uses electromagnetic waves
  • cryoablation, which uses a very cold gas to freeze the tumor

They may also inject ethanol into the tumor to destroy it.

Embolization can treat tumors that have spread to the liver. It involves injecting a substance directly into the artery in the liver. This then reduces or blocks blood flow, destroying the tumor.

The following are the answers to some frequently asked questions.

What is the best treatment for colorectal cancer?

Treatment options for colorectal cancer depend on several factors:

  • type of colorectal cancer
  • stage
  • treatment side effects
  • health of the individual at the time

Finding the right treatment for colorectal cancer is a discussion between a person and their doctor.

What is the most common treatment for colorectal cancer?

The most common treatment for local tumors is surgery.

There are many different surgery options for colorectal cancer depending on the stage and location of the cancer. It is an effective way to remove tumors, especially alongside a systemic treatment such as chemotherapy.

Is colorectal cancer curable?

Both rectal and colon cancer are highly curable types of cancer if a person catches it in the early stages. Screening can help to catch colorectal cancer early.

Surgery for colon cancer results in a cure in approximately 50% of people, if the cancer is only in the bowel at the point of diagnosis.

The probability of curing a person with stage 1 to 3 colorectal cancer ranges from 50–94%, even with just standard treatments and a high tumor stage.

Medicaid is a state-funded organization that subsidizes the costs of cancer treatment. Medicare and private insurance may cover some of the costs associated with cancer treatment.

A person may be able to find financial help at the following organizations:

There are many different treatment options for colorectal cancer, and a person should work with their doctor to determine the best line of treatment for them. Treatment can include surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, and more.

Insurance can help manage the costs of treatment. If a person does not have insurance, organizations such as Medicaid can help to subsidize costs.