Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi, a colon cancer specialist from Cleveland Clinic, shares an overview of colon cancer treatment and which approaches are used for each stage for optimal patient outcomes.
Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi is a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Learn more about Dr. Krishnamurthi here.
Can you provide us with an overview of how colon cancer is treated?
Yes. Colon cancer is treated based on the stage. It’s a disease that, for the vast majority of patients, is only cured with surgery.
If it can be surgically resected, that’s how this disease is cured. So, it’s very important that we do all we can to maximize early detection because it’s a highly curable cancer when it’s caught early. For early-stage colon cancer, patients are treated with surgery. So, stages 1, 2, and 3.
If it’s rectal cancer, we do some treatment before surgery. We give some chemotherapy and radiation for stages 2 and 3 beforehand to maximally shrink down the tumor to enable the surgeon to take the tumor out of the pelvis with normal tissue all around, like negative margins. Rectal cancer tends to be more complicated surgery because of its location in the pelvis.
So, it’s a little bit different from colon cancer in that we do that chemo radiation and chemotherapy up front. Whereas, for colon cancer, patients who have early-stage disease have surgery. And then, if it’s just stage 1, and this is true for rectal also, they’re done.
Excellent prognosis and go on to surveillance.
But if it’s a stage 2, then in colon cancer we have a discussion about chemotherapy afterwards because that could increase the cure rate for some patients. But for stage 3, we absolutely want to offer chemotherapy to our patients with colon cancer because of this very long, proven track record that chemotherapy can increase the cure rate for stage 3 patients, so when it’s gone to lymph nodes. Then if the disease is metastatic, meaning it’s spread to other distant organs like liver or lung, chemotherapy is the mainstay of treatment, generally speaking.
But there are subsets of patients who benefit from surgery. So, if the cancer is metastasized to just the liver or the lung or both organs, but in limited fashion, there is a track record for patients being cured with surgery.
We always are considering that when we have patients with metastatic disease. My first thought is, is this cancer potentially curable? Then we go from there. In some cases, it’s clear that it’s not curable; it’s widely metastatic. Then there’s no point in subjecting a person to surgery and we know that chemotherapy or drug therapy would be the mainstay of treatment.