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This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Colon cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the colon.
The colon is part of the body's digestive system. The digestive system removes and processes nutrients (vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and water) from foods and helps pass waste material out of the body. The digestive system is made up of the esophagus, stomach, and the small and large intestines. The colon (large bowel) is the first part of the large intestine and is about 5 feet long. Together, the rectum and anal canal make up the last part of the large intestine and are about 6-8 inches long. The anal canal ends at the anus (the opening of the large intestine to the outside of the body).Anatomy of the lower digestive system, showing the colon and other organs.
Gastrointestinal stromal tumors can occur in the colon. See the PDQ summary on Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors Treatment for more information.
See the PDQ summary about Unusual Cancers of Childhood Treatment for information about colorectal cancer in children.
Health history affects the risk of developing colon cancer.
Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk to your doctor if you think you may be at risk for colorectal cancer.
Risk factors for colorectal cancer include the following:
Older age is a main risk factor for most cancers. The chance of getting cancer increases as you get older.
Polyps in the colon. Some polyps have a stalk and others do not. Inset shows a photo of a polyp with a stalk.
Signs of colon cancer include blood in the stool or a change in bowel habits.
These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by colon cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
Tests that examine the colon and rectum are used to detect (find) and diagnose colon cancer.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
There are two types of FOBTs:
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:
The prognosis also depends on the blood levels of carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) before treatment begins. CEA is a substance in the blood that may be increased when cancer is present.
After colon cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the colon or to other parts of the body.
The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the colon or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment.
The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:
Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.
When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.
The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if colon cancer spreads to the lung, the cancer cells in the lung are actually colon cancer cells. The disease is metastatic colon cancer, not lung cancer.
The following stages are used for colon cancer:
Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ)
Stage 0 (colon carcinoma in situ). Abnormal cells are shown in the mucosa of the colon wall.
In stage 0, abnormal cells are found in the mucosa (innermost layer) of the colon wall. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ.
Stage I colon cancer. Cancer has spread from the mucosa of the colon wall to the muscle layer.
In stage I colon cancer, cancer has formed in the mucosa (innermost layer) of the colon wall and has spread to the submucosa (layer of tissue next to the mucosa) or to the muscle layer of the colon wall.
Stage II colon cancer. In stage IIA, cancer has spread through the muscle layer of the colon wall to the serosa. In stage IIB, cancer has spread through the serosa but has not spread to nearby organs. In stage IIC, cancer has spread through the serosa to nearby organs.
Stage II colon cancer is divided into stages IIA, IIB, and IIC.
Stage III colon cancer is divided into stages IIIA, IIIB, and IIIC.
Stage IIIA colon cancer. Cancer has spread through the mucosa of the colon wall to the submucosa and may have spread to the muscle layer, and has spread to one to three nearby lymph nodes or tissues near the lymph nodes. OR, cancer has spread through the mucosa to the submucosa and four to six nearby lymph nodes.
In stage IIIA, cancer has spread:
Stage IIIB colon cancer. Cancer has spread through the muscle layer of the colon wall to the serosa or has spread through the serosa but not to nearby organs; cancer has spread to one to three nearby lymph nodes or to tissues near the lymph nodes. OR, cancer has spread to the muscle layer or to the serosa, and to four to six nearby lymph nodes. OR, cancer has spread through the mucosa to the submucosa and may have spread to the muscle layer; cancer has spread to seven or more nearby lymph nodes.
In stage IIIB, cancer has spread:
Stage IIIC colon cancer. Cancer has spread through the serosa of the colon wall but not to nearby organs; cancer has spread to four to six nearby lymph nodes. OR, cancer has spread through the muscle layer to the serosa or has spread through the serosa but not to nearby organs; cancer has spread to seven or more nearby lymph nodes. OR, cancer has spread through the serosa to nearby organs and to one or more nearby lymph nodes or to tissues near the lymph nodes.
In stage IIIC, cancer has spread:
Stage IV colon cancer. The cancer has spread through the blood and lymph nodes to other parts of the body, such as the lung, liver, abdominal wall, or ovary.
Stage IV colon cancer is divided into stages IVA, IVB, and IVC.
Recurrent colon cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the colon or in other parts of the body, such as the liver, lungs, or both.
There are different types of treatment for patients with colon cancer.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with colon cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Six types of standard treatment are used:
Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is the most common treatment for all stages of colon cancer. A doctor may remove the cancer using one of the following types of surgery:
After the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.
Radiofrequency ablation is the use of a special probe with tiny electrodes that kill cancer cells. Sometimes the probe is inserted directly through the skin and only local anesthesia is needed. In other cases, the probe is inserted through an incision in the abdomen. This is done in the hospital with general anesthesia.
Cryosurgery is a treatment that uses an instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue. This type of treatment is also called cryotherapy.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy).
Chemoembolization of the hepatic artery may be used to treat cancer that has spread to the liver. This involves blocking the hepatic artery (the main artery that supplies blood to the liver) and injecting anticancer drugs between the blockage and the liver. The liver's arteries then deliver the drugs throughout the liver. Only a small amount of the drug reaches other parts of the body. The blockage may be temporary or permanent, depending on what is used to block the artery. The liver continues to receive some blood from the hepatic portal vein, which carries blood from the stomach and intestine.
The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
See Drugs Approved for Colon and Rectal Cancer for more information.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:
The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. External radiation therapy is used as palliative therapy to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells.
Types of targeted therapies used in the treatment of colon cancer include the following:
There are different types of monoclonal antibody therapy:
New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Treatment for colon cancer may cause side effects.
For information about side effects caused by treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI's clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
Treatment of stage 0 (carcinoma in situ) may include the following types of surgery:
Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.
Stage I Colon Cancer
Treatment of stage I colon cancer usually includes the following:
Stage II Colon Cancer
Treatment of stage II colon cancer may include the following:
Stage III Colon Cancer
Treatment of stage III colon cancer may include the following:
Stage IV and Recurrent Colon Cancer
Treatment of stage IV and recurrent colon cancer may include the following:
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about colon cancer, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government's center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of colon cancer. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
Reviewers and Updates
Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board.
Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials are listed in PDQ and can be found online at NCI's website. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. The content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text. It cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless the whole summary is shown and it is updated regularly. However, a user would be allowed to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks in the following way: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:
PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Colon Cancer Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/colorectal/patient/colon-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389319]
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use in the PDQ summaries only. If you want to use an image from a PDQ summary and you are not using the whole summary, you must get permission from the owner. It cannot be given by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the images in this summary, along with many other images related to cancer can be found in Visuals Online. Visuals Online is a collection of more than 2,000 scientific images.
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Last Revised: 2018-08-17
If you want to know more about cancer and how it is treated, or if you wish to know about clinical trials for your type of cancer, you can call the NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237, toll free. A trained information specialist can talk with you and answer your questions.
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