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Chemotherapy| is the use of anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells.
Chemotherapy isn’t usually needed for stage 1 colon cancers that haven’t begun to grow through the muscle wall and aren’t affecting the lymph nodes.
For stage 2 colon cancers, the risk of the cancer coming back is low, so chemotherapy may not be needed. However, after surgery the cancer will be examined carefully under the microscope. If cancer cells are found in the blood or lymph vessels very close to the cancer, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy. Giving chemotherapy after surgery is known as adjuvant treatment. Its aim is to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.
You may also be offered chemotherapy as part of a clinical trial|. Your cancer specialist will discuss whether chemotherapy will be of any benefit to you if you have stage 2 colon cancer.
People with stage 3 colon cancer are usually offered chemotherapy. They may also be offered chemotherapy as part of a trial.
The main drugs used in the adjuvant treatment of colon cancer are a combination of the following:
There are various benefits and risks of having chemotherapy. Your doctor can discuss these with you.
Chemotherapy can reduce the chance of the cancer coming back, but it doesn’t guarantee this. It can also sometimes cause side effects that may be unpleasant. To help decide whether adjuvant chemotherapy may be appropriate in your case, your specialist will take into account the risk of any cancer cells being left behind, the likelihood that the chemotherapy will get rid of them, and the possible side effects of the treatment.
If the chance of the cancer coming back is low, the chemotherapy may only slightly reduce the chance of the cancer returning. However, if the risk is high, the benefit of chemotherapy may be greater. It’s important to discuss the possible risks and benefits of chemotherapy in your particular situation with your doctor.
Adjuvant chemotherapy for colon cancer is usually given with a drug called 5-fluorouracil (5FU). 5FU is usually given with a vitamin called folinic acid (leucovorin), which makes it more effective. A tablet that works in the same way as 5FU, known as capecitabine (Xeloda®), is sometimes used. Other drugs such as oxaliplatin (Eloxatin®) or irinotecan (Campto®) are often used if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes close to the colon.
There’s some evidence that chemotherapy is less effective in older people. You and your specialist will discuss whether treatment is appropriate for you.
There are several research trials in the UK looking at different chemotherapy drugs, or combinations of drugs, to treat colon cancer. You may be asked if you’d like to take part in a research trial.
Chemotherapy may also be given when the colon cancer has spread to another part of the body (secondary or advanced cancer). Although cancer of the colon that’s spread to another part of the body can’t usually be cured, treatment with chemotherapy may be recommended by your doctor.
The aim of the chemotherapy is to shrink the cancers and reduce symptoms. This can sometimes help to prolong life.
The most common place for it to spread to is the liver. The next most common place is the lungs. Chemotherapy may be given to shrink cancers before they are removed from the liver or, more rarely, the lungs. Sometimes drugs called monoclonal antibodies| are given in combination with chemotherapy to shrink the tumour before surgery.
There are various benefits and disadvantages of chemotherapy for advanced bowel cancer, and it’s important to discuss these with your cancer specialist.
It isn’t possible to predict whether chemotherapy will work for a particular person, but if they are fairly fit, the treatment is more likely to be effective. It’s also less likely to have side effects than in someone who is unwell when they start the treatment.
You don’t have to have chemotherapy unless you want to. If you choose not to, you’ll still be given treatment to help control any symptoms caused by the cancer. This is known as supportive or palliative care. Palliative care can also be given alongside chemotherapy if needed.
Your doctor will consider a number of things before asking you to make a decision about particular treatments. This will include the position of the secondary cancer, your general health and any chemotherapy treatment you’ve had in the past.
The most commonly-used chemotherapy drugs for advanced bowel cancer are:
Several research trials are being carried out to test new drugs for advanced colon cancer, and to help find the best way of using the current drugs (those mentioned above). You may be asked if you’d like to take part in a research trial using new chemotherapy drugs or new types of treatments.
If the cancer starts to grow again, during or after the chemotherapy, you may be given a different type of chemotherapy (this is known as second-line treatment). Sometimes a third course of chemotherapy (third-line treatment) may be given.
Many people are given capsules or tablets, which are swallowed with water.
Some chemotherapy drugs are given by injection into a vein (intravenously). The drugs may be given through a vein in the back of your hand; a plastic line called a central line, in your chest; or a thin tube inserted into a vein in the crook of your arm (a PICC line).
Position of a central line
View a large copy of the diagram showing the position of a central line|
Position of a PICC line
View a large copy of the diagram showing the position of a PICC line|
Sometimes chemotherapy can be given continuously through a small portable pump,
which is attached to your central or PICC line. A controlled amount of the drug is given into the bloodstream over a period of time. This means that you can go home with the pump, and spend less time in hospital.
You can have intravenous chemotherapy as an outpatient or inpatient, depending on the treatment. If the treatment lasts for only a few hours, it’s usually given as an outpatient.
If your treatment lasts a few days it will usually be given as an inpatient, but it may be possible for you to have it as an outpatient. Your specialist will discuss this with you.
After the treatment, you’ll usually have a rest period of a few weeks. This allows your body to recover from the side effects of the treatment. The treatment and rest period make up a cycle of treatment. Each cycle usually lasts two or three weeks.
The number of cycles you have may depend on the stage of cancer and how well it’s responding to the drugs. You mayhave a CT scan after you’ve had a number of cycles, depending on your situation. A CT scan takes a series of x-rays to build up a picture of the inside of the body.
Content last reviewed: 1 July 2012
Next planned review: 2014
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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