Treating Colorectal Cancer
If you’ve been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, your cancer care team will discuss your treatment options with you. It’s important that you think carefully about each of your choices. You will want to weigh the benefits of each treatment option against the possible risks and side effects.
How is colorectal cancer treated?
There are several ways to treat colorectal cancer, depending on its type and stage.
Local treatments: Some treatments are called local therapies, meaning they treat the tumor without affecting the rest of the body. Types of local therapy used for colorectal cancer include:
- Surgery (the type of surgery will depend on whether it is for colon or rectal cancer)
- Radiation therapy
- Ablation or embolization
These treatments are more likely to be useful for earlier stage (less advanced) cancers, although they might also be used in some other situations.
Systemic treatments: Colorectal cancer can also be treated using drugs, which can be given by mouth or directly into the bloodstream. These are called systemic therapies because they can reach cancer cells anywhere in the body. Depending on the type of colorectal cancer, several different types of drugs might be used, including:
Depending on the stage of the cancer and other factors, different types of treatment may be combined at the same time or used after one another. To learn about the most common approaches to treating these cancers, see Treatment of colon cancer, by stage or Treatment of rectal cancer, by stage.
Which doctors treat colorectal cancer?
Based on your treatment options, you might have different types of doctors on your treatment team. These doctors could include:
- A gastroenterologist: a doctor who treats disorders of the gastrointestinal (digestive) tract
- A surgical oncologist (oncologic surgeon): a doctor who uses surgery to treat cancer
- A colorectal surgeon: a doctor who uses surgery to treat diseases of the colon and rectum
- A radiation oncologist: a doctor who treats cancer with radiation therapy
- A medical oncologist: a doctor who treats cancer with medicines such as chemotherapy or targeted therapy
You might have many other specialists on your treatment team as well, including physician assistants (PAs), nurse practitioners (NPs), nurses, psychologists, nutritionists, social workers, and other health professionals. See Health Professionals Associated With Cancer Care for more on this.
Making treatment decisions
It’s important to discuss all of your treatment options, including their goals and possible side effects, with your doctors to help make the decision that best fits your needs. It’s also very important to ask questions if there is anything you’re not sure about. See What Should You Ask Your Doctor About Colorectal Cancer? for ideas.
Getting a second opinion
You might also want to get a second opinion. This can give you more information and help you feel more certain about the treatment plan you choose. If you aren’t sure where to go for a second opinion, ask your doctor for help.
Thinking about taking part in a clinical trial
Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures. Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. In some cases they may be the only way to get access to newer treatments. They are also the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they are not right for everyone.
If you would like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for you, start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials. You can also call our clinical trials matching service at 1-800-303-5691 for a list of studies that meet your medical needs, or see Clinical Trials to learn more.
Considering complementary and alternative methods
You may hear about alternative or complementary methods that your doctor hasn’t mentioned to treat your cancer or relieve symptoms. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few.
Complementary methods refer to treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor’s medical treatment. Although some of these methods might be helpful in relieving symptoms or helping you feel better, many have not been proven to work. Some might even be dangerous.
Be sure to talk to your cancer care team about any method you are thinking about using. They can help you learn what is known (or not known) about the method, which can help you make an informed decision. See Complementary and Alternative Medicine to learn more.
Choosing to stop treatment or choosing no treatment at all
For some people, when treatments have been tried and are no longer controlling the cancer, it could be time to weigh the benefits and risks of continuing to try new treatments. Whether or not you continue treatment, there are still things you can do to help maintain or improve your quality of life. Learn more in If Cancer Treatments Are No Longer Working.
Some people, especially if the cancer is advanced, might not want to be treated at all. There are many reasons you might decide not to get cancer treatment, but it’s important to talk to your doctors and you make that decision. Remember that even if you choose not to treat the cancer, you can still get supportive care to help with pain or other symptoms.
Help getting through colorectal cancer treatment
Your cancer care team will be your first source of information and support, but there are other resources for help when you need it. Hospital- or clinic-based support services are an important part of your care. These might include nursing or social work services, financial aid, nutritional advice, rehab, or spiritual help.
The American Cancer Society also has programs and services – including rides to treatment, lodging, support groups, and more – to help you get through treatment. Call our National Cancer Information Center at 1-800-227-2345 and speak with one of our trained specialists on call 24 hours a day, every day.