Systemic Therapy for Colon Cancer

Systemic therapies are administered to the patient as medicines. Their purpose is to treat the body holistically, attacking and eliminating cancer cells wherever they may be found.

Not all colon cancer patients will need systemic therapies. Patients with early stage tumors can often be cured with surgery alone. Systemic therapies tend to be more helpful for patients with later-stage or metastatic colon cancers.

Read on to learn more about the different systemic therapies for colon cancer: chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy.

What is chemotherapy for colon cancer?

Chemotherapy is a type of medicine that is often infused into the patient through an IV. It’s administered in multi-week cycles that intersperse days of treatment with designated recovery days. Spacing treatments out over a period of weeks helps patients to cope with side effects.

Patients sometimes receive chemotherapy following surgery to remove their tumor. This is called “adjuvant” chemotherapy. It helps ensure that the cancer won’t return.

In patients with later-stage or metastatic colon cancer, chemotherapy can prevent the cancer from spreading even further and improve their quality of life.

Many patients have heard about the side effects of chemotherapy, especially losing one’s hair. Fortunately, the chemotherapy drugs used to treat colon cancer usually don’t cause hair loss. Your treatment team will work proactively to manage and alleviate other common side effects, such as nausea and neuropathy. You’ll be given anti-emetic drugs to treat nausea and, ideally, prevent it before it starts.

Neuropathy, which is tingling and numbness in the hands and feet, can be more difficult to treat. Let your care team know about any symptoms you may be having, as there are ongoing clinical trials at Siteman investigating new methods and solutions for this condition. In cases where neuropathy can’t be controlled, chemotherapy may be stopped. But fortunately, for most patients, neuropathy resolves over time.

Chemotherapy can be a major commitment, and your team at Siteman will do everything they can to help you through the process. 

What is targeted therapy for colon cancer?

Unlike chemotherapy, which attacks cancer cells as a whole, targeted therapy disables specific molecular features that allow cancer cells to divide and spread. It’s given to patients in IV infusion or pill form.

At this time, targeted therapy is only used in patients with metastatic colon cancer whose tumors have specific genetic profiles. Your physician will let you know if targeted therapy would be helpful for you.

What is immunotherapy for colon cancer?

Immunotherapy is a new form of treatment that taps into the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

The most common immunotherapies for colon cancer are checkpoint inhibitors, which help T-cells in the immune system identify and eliminate cancer cells.

Colon cancer patients usually don’t receive immunotherapies unless they have advanced or metastatic disease. Like targeted therapy, immunotherapy is only given to patients with certain genetic mutations. However, Washington University Physicians at Siteman are studying immunotherapies in clinical trials to see if they could be applied to a broader population of patients. Ask your physician if you might be eligible for an immunotherapy clinical trial.