Treatment of colorectal cancer that has spread to other parts of the body (also called "metastatic colorectal cancer") depends on the location of the cancer (i.e., where the cancer has spread).

Surgery

If cancer has spread only to the liver or lungs, surgery is the only treatment that may provide a cure.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is used to treat people with metastatic colorectal cancer that cannot be treated with surgery.

Chemotherapy for metastatic colorectal cancer cannot provide a cure. Instead, its role is to help a person live longer, to relieve symptoms, and to improve the quality of life. Sometimes, chemotherapy may be able to shrink tumours to the point where they may be removed by surgery.

Chemotherapy medications are often given in "regimens": combinations of chemotherapy medications that have standard doses of medication and standard times when the treatment is given. Doctors often talk about these regimens using acronyms indicating the medications used in the regimen. Some examples of common regimens for metastatic colorectal cancer are:

  • FOLFIRI, a chemotherapy regimen consisting of 5-fluorouracil, leucovorin, and irinotecan
  • FOLFOX, a chemotherapy regimen that includes 5-fluorouracil, leucovorin, and oxaliplatin

Other medications that may be used to treat metastatic colorectal cancer include bevacizumab (Avastin®), capecitabine (Xeloda®), cetuximab (Erbitux®), raltitrexed (Tomudex®), panitumumab (Vectibix®), and irinotecan (Camptosar®).

To learn more about medications for metastatic colorectal cancer, see "Coping with Colorectal Cancer."

Radiation

Radiation therapy is more commonly used in rectal cancer than in colon cancer. It can be used to destroy cancer cells that are left after surgery. In some cases, radiation therapy may be used to relieve pain in specific areas affected by the cancer's spread.

All treatments have the potential to cause side effects. But side effects may be preventable, manageable, or reversible. Learn more about which side effects you may experience and how you can cope.

If your colorectal cancer has spread, you still have a variety of treatment optionsTalk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of your treatment options. Working with your doctor can help you find a treatment that's right for you.