Colon Cancer Treatment Options | MedStar Health
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Pallavi Kumar, MD, Medical Oncologist and Director of Immuno-Oncology

When you’ve been diagnosed with colon cancer, you need a care team with the experience and technology to treat you with the most advanced, comprehensive, and personalized care. That’s why every case is reviewed by a team of medical, surgical, and radiation oncologists alongside other specialists working to aggressively treat your tumor and prevent it from returning.

Surgery is often the cornerstone of any cancer treatment plan. The goal of surgery is to remove the entire tumor — or as much of it as possible. You may have other treatments following the surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells and prevent it from returning, including radiation or systemic therapy, such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy.

Immunotherapy may be especially effective if your tumor is found to be unstable, or MSI-High. This is measured using a Microsatellite Instable (MSI) screening that tests DNA changes between your tumor and surrounding healthy tissue.

Learn more about colon cancer treatment below.

Colon cancer surgery

What it is: During surgery, a surgical oncologist will remove the cancerous tumor and surrounding tissue. Your surgical options will vary depending on the thickness of your tumor and whether or not it has spread or metastasized. In some cases, your surgeon may perform traditional surgery, while a minimally invasive procedure, such as robotic surgery, may be an option for others.

How it works: If you have small growths (polyps) that are contained to the colon, your surgeon will remove those during a colonoscopy by performing a local excision. That means your surgeon will access the tumor through the rectum and remove it.

If you have larger polyps, your doctor may need to remove a small amount of the lining in your colon during a surgery called an endoscopic mucosal resection.

If your colon cancer has grown into or through your colon, your surgeon may perform a partial colectomy. This procedure involves the surgeon removing the part of your colon that contains cancer.

In some cases, it’s not possible to reconnect the healthy portions of the colon or rectum. As a result, your surgeon will have to perform a permanent or temporary colostomy. That means your doctor will create an opening, called a stoma, and attach a bag to collect waste.

Treating colon cancer with robotic surgery

Robotic surgery allows your surgeon to effectively remove your cancerous tumor with even more precision while minimizing the pain and risk associated with traditional surgery. Because it is a minimally invasive procedure, patients recover faster, have less scarring, and experience fewer side effects.

Chemotherapy for colon cancer

What it is: Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancerous tumors and is typically used as a supplement to surgery. In some cases, you may receive chemotherapy before and after surgery, as chemotherapy can help to increase the effectiveness of surgery, especially if it has spread to your lymph nodes.

How it works: During chemotherapy, your oncology specialists will use special medication to destroy cancerous tumors in the colon. You may take a pill, or it may be injected by a needle into a vein or muscle — sometimes both. Most importantly, it reduces the likelihood that colon cancer will return. Chemotherapy can also help to relieve symptoms when it spreads to other parts of the body.

Radiation for colon cancer

What it is: Radiation therapy uses targeted high-energy rays to kill colon cancer cells that might remain after your surgery. Similar to chemotherapy, radiation may be given before or after surgery to reduce the risk of your cancer from coming back.

How it works: During radiation therapy, a radiation oncologist delivers high doses of radiation based on your tumor’s size, thickness, and location. When this happens, your tumor may shrink, making surgery easier. It can also help to relieve symptoms associated with it.

Immunotherapy for colon cancer

What it is: Over the past few decades, immunotherapy has emerged as an effective treatment option for colon cancer. Immunotherapy stimulates your immune system’s defense mechanisms, which can help it more effectively detect and destroy cancer cells.

How it works: Your immune system naturally identifies foreign germs or substances and responds by attacking them. However, cancer cells can be harder for your immune system to find. Researchers are making it easier for your immune system to recognize cancer cells through the use of special drugs that can:

  • Strengthen your immune system
  • Train the immune system to fight back

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