Colorectal Cancer Treatments - Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. You may have it for any of the following reasons:

  • To help shrink a tumor before surgery

  • To reduce the chance that the cancer will come back after surgery

  • To treat cancer that has spread to other parts of your body

  • To make radiation therapy more effective by making cells more sensitive to the radiation

  • To treat cancer that has come back

When chemotherapy is used 

Your health care provider may recommend chemotherapy to treat colorectal cancer in any of the following situations:

  • You have stage II colon cancer. Chemotherapy is sometimes used for stage II colon cancer after surgery, but it's unclear whether this is a helpful treatment. You should discuss this decision with your health care provider and ask what the goal is.

  • You have stage III colon cancer. Chemotherapy is typically given after surgery.

  • You have stage IV colon cancer. In this case, chemotherapy may be used either by itself or along with surgery in selected cases.

  • You have stage II or III rectal cancer. Chemotherapy is typically given along with radiation before surgery and then again after surgery. 

  • You have stage IV rectal cancer. In this case, chemotherapy may be used either by itself or along with surgery and/or radiation therapy in selected cases.

  • You have colon or rectal cancer that has recurred (come back) after initial treatment.

Different ways you can get chemotherapy

Your health care provider has options for how to give you chemotherapy drugs. Depending on the specific drugs you are taking, you may get them in one of these ways: 

  • IV. The drug is given through a small needle that has been put into a vein. The drug may drip in slowly over several hours or be given more quickly over a few minutes. It may also be given directly into an artery leading to a part of the body containing the  tumor. 

  • Oral. You swallow these drugs as pills.

To reduce the damage to healthy cells and to give them a chance to recover, chemotherapy is given in cycles. Your health care provider will decide if you need to get it daily, weekly, every few weeks, or monthly.

Chemotherapy is usually given in an outpatient setting. That means that you get it at a hospital, clinic, or health care provider's office, and you can go home after the treatment is given. You'll be watched for reactions during your treatments. Since each of your chemotherapy treatments may last for a while, you may want to take along something that is comforting to you, such as music to listen to. You may also want to bring something to keep you busy, such as a deck of cards or a book.

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