Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Treatment for colorectal cancer

Specific treatment for colorectal cancer will be determined by your physician based on:

  • Your age, overall health and medical history.
  • Extent of the disease. 
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures or therapies. 
  • Expectations for the course of this disease. 
  • Your opinion or preference.

After the colorectal cancer is diagnosed and staged, your physician will recommend a treatment plan. Treatment may include:

  • Colon surgery – often, the primary treatment for colorectal cancer is an operation called a colon resection, in which the cancer and a length of normal tissue on either side of the cancer are removed, as well as the nearby lymph nodes.
  • Radiation therapy – the use of high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and to shrink tumors. There are two ways to deliver radiation therapy, including the following:
    • External radiation (external beam therapy) – a treatment that precisely sends high levels of radiation directly to the cancer cells. The machine is controlled by the radiation therapist. Since radiation is used to kill cancer cells and to shrink tumors, special shields may be used to protect the tissue surrounding the treatment area. Radiation treatments are painless and usually last a few minutes. 
    • Internal radiation (brachytherapy, implant radiation) – radiation is given inside the body as close to the cancer as possible. Substances that produce radiation, called radioisotopes, may be swallowed, injected or implanted directly into the tumor. Some of the radioactive implants are called “seeds” or “capsules.”

Internal radiation involves giving a higher dose of radiation in a shorter time span than with external radiation. Some internal radiation treatments stay in the body temporarily. Other internal treatments stay in the body permanently, through the radioactive substance looses its radiation within a short period of time. In some cases, both internal and external radiation therapies are used. 

  • Chemotherapy – the use of anti-cancer drugs to treat cancerous cells. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell’s ability to grow or reproduce. Different groups of drugs work in different ways to fight cancer cells. The oncologist will recommend a treatment plan for each individual. Studies have shown that chemotherapy after surgery can increase the survival rate for patients with some stages of colon cancer. Chemotherapy also can help relieve symptoms of advanced cancer.