Systemic Therapy for Colon Cancer

Systemic therapies are 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 achieve cure with surgery alone. Systemic therapies tend to work best for patients with later-stage or metastatic colon cancers.

Chemotherapy for colon cancer

Colon cancer patients often receive chemotherapy through an IV. Doctors administer it 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 after surgery to remove a tumor. This is called “adjuvant” chemotherapy and 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. Ultimately, this can improve their quality of life.

Will chemotherapy make me lose my hair?

Fortunately, the chemotherapy drugs that 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. Your doctor can prescribe anti-emetic drugs to treat nausea and, ideally, prevent it before it starts.

What is neuropathy?

Neuropathy is a side effect of chemotherapy that causes tingling and numbness in the hands and feet. Let your care team know about any symptoms you may have, as there are ongoing clinical trials at Siteman investigating new methods and solutions for this condition. If your neuropathy can’t be controlled, you may need to stop chemotherapy. The good news is that neuropathy resolves over time for most patients.

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. Patients receive targeted therapy through an IV or in pill form.

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

Immunotherapy for colon cancer

Immunotherapy is a form of treatment that harnesses 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. Only patients with certain genetic mutations receive immunotherapy. 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 about your eligibility for an immunotherapy clinical trial.