Colon Cancer

Summary Type: Treatment
Summary Audience: Patients
Summary Language: English
Summary Description: Expert-reviewed information summary about the treatment of colon cancer.


Colon Cancer

General Information About Colon Cancer

Colon cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the colon.

The colon is part of the body’s digestive system . The digestive system removes and processes nutrients (vitamins , minerals , carbohydrates , fats, proteins , and water) from foods and helps pass waste material out of the body. The digestive system is made up of the esophagus , stomach , and the small and large intestines . The first 6 feet of the large intestine are called the large bowel or colon. The last 6 inches are the rectum and the anal canal. The anal canal ends at the anus (the opening of the large intestine to the outside of the body). Anatomy of the lower digestive system, showing the colon and other organs.

Age and health history can affect the risk of developing colon cancer.

Risk factors include the following:

Possible signs of colon cancer include a change in bowel habits or blood in the stool.

These and other symptoms may be caused by colon cancer . Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • A change in bowel habits.
  • Blood (either bright red or very dark) in the stool .
  • Diarrhea , constipation , or feeling that the bowel does not empty completely.
  • Stools that are narrower than usual.
  • Frequent gas pains, bloating, fullness, or cramps.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Feeling very tired.
  • Vomiting .
Tests that examine the rectum, rectal tissue, and blood are used to detect (find) and diagnose colon cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Fecal occult blood test : A test to check stool (solid waste) for blood that can only be seen with a microscope. Small samples of stool are placed on special cards and returned to the doctor or laboratory for testing. Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) kit to check for blood in stool.
  • Digital rectal exam : An exam of the rectum. The doctor or nurse inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for lumps or anything else that seems unusual.
  • Barium enema : A series of x-rays of the lower gastrointestinal tract . A liquid that contains barium (a silver-white metallic compound) is put into the rectum. The barium coats the lower gastrointestinal tract and x-rays are taken. This procedure is also called a lower GI series. Barium enema procedure. The patient lies on an x-ray table. Barium liquid is put into the rectum and flows through the colon. X-rays are taken to look for abnormal areas.
  • Sigmoidoscopy : A procedure to look inside the rectum and sigmoid (lower) colon for polyps, abnormal areas, or cancer. A sigmoidoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through the rectum into the sigmoid colon. Polyps or tissue samples may be taken for biopsy . Sigmoidoscopy. A thin, lighted tube is inserted through the anus and rectum and into the lower part of the colon to look for abnormal areas.
  • Colonoscopy : A procedure to look inside the rectum and colon for polyps, abnormal areas, or cancer. A colonoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through the rectum into the colon. Polyps or tissue samples may be taken for biopsy. Colonoscopy. A thin, lighted tube is inserted through the anus and rectum and into the colon to look for abnormal areas.
  • Biopsy : The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.
  • Virtual colonoscopy : A procedure that uses a series of x-rays called computed tomography to make a series of pictures of the colon. A computer puts the pictures together to create detailed images that may show polyps and anything else that seems unusual on the inside surface of the colon. This test is also called colonography or CT colonography.
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (whether the cancer is in the inner lining of the colon only, involves the whole colon, or has spread to other places in the body).
  • Whether the cancer has blocked or created a hole in the colon.
  • The blood levels of carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA; a substance in the blood that may be increased when cancer is present) before treatment begins.
  • Whether the cancer has recurred .
  • The patient’s general health.

Treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer.
  • Whether the cancer has recurred.
  • The patient’s general health.

Stages of Colon Cancer

After colon cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the colon or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the colon or to other parts of the body is called staging . The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease . It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • Lymph node biopsy : The removal of all or part of a lymph node. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells .
  • Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
  • Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) assay : A test that measures the level of CEA in the blood. CEA is released into the bloodstream from both cancer cells and normal cells. When found in higher than normal amounts, it can be a sign of colon cancer or other conditions.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the colon. A substance called gadolinium is injected into the patient through a vein. The gadolinium collects around the cancer cells so they show up brighter in the picture. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Chest x-ray : An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Surgery : A procedure to remove the tumor and see how far it has spread through the colon.
The following stages are used for colon cancer: As colon cancer progresses from Stage 0 to Stage IV, the cancer cells grow through the layers of the colon wall and spread to lymph nodes and other organs.
Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ)

In stage 0 , the cancer is found only in the innermost lining of the colon . Stage 0 cancer is also called carcinoma in situ .

Stage I

In stage I , the cancer has spread beyond the innermost tissue layer of the colon wall to the middle layers. Stage I colon cancer is sometimes called Dukes’ A colon cancer.

Stage II

Stage II colon cancer is divided into stage IIA and stage IIB.

Stage II colon cancer is sometimes called Dukes' B colon cancer.

Stage III

Stage III colon cancer is divided into stage IIIA, stage IIIB, and stage IIIC.

Stage III colon cancer is sometimes called Dukes' C colon cancer.

Stage IV

In stage IV , cancer may have spread to nearby lymph nodes and has spread to other parts of the body, such as the liver or lungs . Stage IV colon cancer is sometimes called Dukes’ D colon cancer.

Recurrent Colon Cancer

Recurrent colon cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the colon or in other parts of the body, such as the liver , lungs , or both.

Treatment Option Overview

There are different types of treatment for patients with colon cancer.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with colon cancer . Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials . Before starting treatment, patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site. Choosing the most appropriate cancer treatment is a decision that ideally involves the patient, family, and health care team.

Three types of standard treatment are used. These include the following:
Surgery

Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is the most common treatment for all stages of colon cancer . A doctor may remove the cancer using one of the following types of surgery:

  • Local excision : If the cancer is found at a very early stage, the doctor may remove it without cutting through the abdominal wall. Instead, the doctor may put a tube through the rectum into the colon and cut the cancer out. This is called a local excision. If the cancer is found in a polyp (a small bulging piece of tissue ), the operation is called a polypectomy .
  • Resection : If the cancer is larger, the doctor will perform a partial colectomy (removing the cancer and a small amount of healthy tissue around it). The doctor may then perform an anastomosis (sewing the healthy parts of the colon together). The doctor will also usually remove lymph nodes near the colon and examine them under a microscope to see whether they contain cancer. Colon cancer surgery with anastomosis. Part of the colon containing the cancer and nearby healthy tissue is removed, and then the cut ends of the colon are joined.
  • Resection and colostomy : If the doctor is not able to sew the 2 ends of the colon back together, a stoma (an opening) is made on the outside of the body for waste to pass through. This procedure is called a colostomy. A bag is placed around the stoma to collect the waste. Sometimes the colostomy is needed only until the lower colon has healed, and then it can be reversed. If the doctor needs to remove the entire lower colon, however, the colostomy may be permanent. Colon cancer surgery with colostomy. Part of the colon containing the cancer and nearby healthy tissue is removed, a stoma is created, and a colostomy bag is attached to the stoma.
  • Radiofrequency ablation : The use of a special probe with tiny electrodes that kill cancer cells. Sometimes the probe is inserted directly through the skin and only local anesthesia is needed. In other cases, the probe is inserted through an incision in the abdomen . This is done in the hospital with general anesthesia .
  • Cryosurgery : A treatment that uses an instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue, such as carcinoma in situ . This type of treatment is also called cryotherapy .

Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the operation, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to increase the chances of a cure, is called adjuvant therapy .

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells , either by killing the cells or by stopping the cells from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy ). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the spinal column, an organ , or a body cavity such as the abdomen , the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy ).

Chemoembolization of the hepatic artery may be used to treat cancer that has spread to the liver . This involves blocking the hepatic artery (the main artery that supplies blood to the liver) and injecting anticancer drugs between the blockage and the liver. The liver’s arteries then deliver the drugs throughout the liver. Only a small amount of the drug reaches other parts of the body. The blockage may be temporary or permanent, depending on what is used to block the artery. The liver continues to receive some blood from the hepatic portal vein , which carries blood from the stomach and intestine .

The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds , wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Other types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials. These include the following:
Biologic therapy

Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or immunotherapy.

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials , but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Follow-up exams may help find recurrent colon cancer earlier.

After treatment, a blood test to measure carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA; a substance in the blood that may be increased when colon cancer is present) may be done along with other tests to see if the cancer has come back.

Treatment Options for Colon Cancer

Stage 0 Colon Cancer (Carcinoma in Situ)

Treatment of stage 0 (carcinoma in situ ) may include the following types of surgery :

Stage I Colon Cancer

Treatment of stage I colon cancer is usually resection /anastomosis .

Stage II Colon Cancer

Treatment of stage II colon cancer may include the following:

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage III Colon Cancer

Treatment of stage III colon cancer may include the following:

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Stage IV and Recurrent Colon Cancer

Treatment of stage IV and recurrent colon cancer may include the following:

Treatment of locally recurrent colon cancer may be local excision .

Special treatments of cancer that has spread to or recurred in the liver may include the following:

Patients whose colon cancer spreads or recurs after initial treatment with chemotherapy may be offered further chemotherapy with a different drug or combination of drugs.

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials , but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Changes to This Summary (05/20/2005)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Editorial changes were made to this summary.

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PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about new treatments, the risks involved, and how well they do or do not work. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

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2005-05-20