The Different Options for Colon Cancer Treatments
Knowing the next step when you or a loved one have been diagnosed with colon cancer can be difficult. With so much information out there, it may be overwhelming to research colon cancer treatments and its possibilities. It is up to you and your healthcare team to make the best decision, so you should know your options.
What is Colon Cancer?
Colon cancer starts in your colon or rectum. The cancer starts when cells in the body mutate and start multiplying either abnormally or rapidly, or the mutated cells do not die off at a time that a normal cell should. Many colon cancers start as a polyp—a growth on the inner lining of the colon. Over time, polyps may become cancer and grow into the colon wall, eventually affecting blood vessels or lymph vessels which help cancer cells travel to lymph nodes or other areas of the body.
Colon Cancer Treatments
There are five stages of colon cancer, weighted from zero to four. The higher the number, the more advanced the cancer is and the more it has spread. After a colon cancer diagnosis, the doctor will need to determine the stage of your cancer and location of the tumor to advise how to best treat it. When deciding which treatment option to pursue, remember that each treatment has its own side effects so weigh the pros and cons of each.
Here are common treatments for colon cancer:
Surgery is an option for all stages of colon cancer and the type of surgery will depend on stage and location of the colon cancer.
Types of surgery for early stage colon cancer:
Types of surgery for more advanced colon cancer:
- Partial colectomy. The surgeon will remove a part of your colon that contains the cancer, as well as surrounding tissue on either side of the cancer.
- Ostomy. This is a temporary or permanent surgery to create a new path for waste to leave your body. A colostomy creates an opening from the colon to the outside of the body. An ileostomy creates an opening from the ileum (part of the small intestine) to the outside of the body.
- Lymph node removal. Lymph nodes, or samples from them, are surgically removed to test for cancer.
Surgery for advanced cancer:
- Stent placement. A mesh-like metal tube is placed in the intestine to open it so stool can flow normally.
- Surgery to relieve a blockage of the colon or other conditions to improve your symptoms.
If you have skin cancer, your doctor may have mentioned using radiation therapy as a form of treatment. Learn about radiation therapy for skin cancer here.
Chemotherapy uses drugs given in regular intervals to destroy rapidly growing and dividing cells. It is commonly given intravenously but can also be given in other ways such as a pill, topically, or injected into specific sites in the body like a muscle, artery, or the tumour itself.
Chemotherapy can be used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that remain in the body and minimize the risk of the cancer returning. It may also be administered before surgery to shrink tumours to make them easier to remove.
Radiation therapy uses powerful energy sources like x-rays and protons to kill cancer cells or shrink a large cancer mass before an operation. It is usually offered after surgery or used to reduce colon cancer symptoms if surgery is not a viable option. This therapy helps prevent cancer from coming back to the same area. Radiation therapy may be offered if the tumour has grown into nearby tissues or if the cancer could not be entirely removed with a bowel resection.
Targeted drug treatments focus on specific abnormalities within cancer cells and the treatment is designed to block these abnormalities, causing cancer cells to die off. Targeted therapy is typically reserved for those with advanced colon cancer (stage 4 or recurrent colon cancer).
In advanced colon cancer, immunotherapy is a drug treatment that uses your immune system to fight cancer. Your body’s immune system may not attack the cancer cells because they produce proteins that the immune system does not recognize as cancer. Immunotherapy either stimulates your immune system to attack cancer cells directly or provides man-made immune system proteins to fight the cancer cells.
There are not any alternative treatments that have been proven effective by scientific evidence to treat colon cancer. With this being said, alternative medicine may help you feel better as a complement to your primary treatment. Make sure to check with your doctor to ensure that your alternative treatments do not interfere with your primary treatment.
Some alternative treatments include:
- Acupuncture: the use of needles to stimulate certain pressure points to relieve symptoms
- Aromatherapy: using essential oils to send chemical messages to the brain
- Herbal medicine: using plants/extracts to help promote health
- Medical marijuana: using cannabis to ease side effects of primary treatment
- Massage: rubbing muscles to help aid in relaxation, immune function and reduction of pain symptoms
- Meditation: focusing on the present moment to reduce anxiety and stress
- Tai Chi or yoga: movements from these activities can reduce stress, aid in circulation, and improve sleep
Also referred to as supportive care, palliative care provides relief from pain and other symptoms. The goal of this treatment is to improve quality of life and offer an extra layer of support to your ongoing care.
Clinical trials may be available to test new treatments, therapies, surgery, radiation, or combination procedures. The trials test as a means to prevent, detect, treat, or manage colon cancer. Participants volunteer in hope the new treatment will work for them or they want to help find future cures for colon cancer.
Screening tests are available to find the cancer even if you do not show any symptoms. Finding colon cancer early provides the greatest chance for a cure. Exercising diligence with your health can make all the difference in colon cancer treatment.