Colon Cancer Treatment (Professional)
General Information About Colon Cancer
Note: Some citations in the text of this section are followed by a level of evidence. The PDQ editorial boards use a formal ranking system to help the reader judge the strength of evidence linked to the reported results of a therapeutic strategy. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Levels of Evidence for more information.)
Incidence and Mortality
Estimated new cases and deaths from colon cancer in the United States in 2011:
- New cases: 101,340 (colon cancer only).
- Deaths: 49,380 (colon and rectal cancers combined).
Cancer of the colon is a highly treatable and often curable disease when localized to the bowel. Surgery is the primary form of treatment and results in cure in approximately 50% of the patients. Recurrence following surgery is a major problem and is often the ultimate cause of death.
The prognosis of patients with colon cancer is clearly related to the degree of penetration of the tumor through the bowel wall, the presence or absence of nodal involvement, and the presence or absence of distant metastases. These three characteristics form the basis for all staging systems developed for this disease. Bowel obstruction and bowel perforation are indicators of poor prognosis. Elevated pretreatment serum levels of carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) have a negative prognostic significance. The American Joint Committee on Cancer and a National Cancer Institute-sponsored panel recommended that at least 12 lymph nodes be examined in patients with colon and rectal cancer to confirm the absence of nodal involvement by tumor.[4,5,6] This recommendation takes into consideration that the number of lymph nodes examined is a reflection of the aggressiveness of lymphovascular mesenteric dissection at the time of surgical resection and the pathologic identification of nodes in the specimen. Retrospective studies demonstrated that the number of lymph nodes examined in colon and rectal surgery may be associated with patient outcome.[7,8,9,10]
Many other prognostic markers have been evaluated retrospectively for patients with colon cancer, though most, including allelic loss of chromosome 18q or thymidylate synthase expression, have not been prospectively validated.[11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20] Microsatellite instability, also associated with hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC), has been associated with improved survival independent of tumor stage in a population-based series of 607 patients younger than 50 years with colorectal cancer. Treatment decisions depend on factors such as physician and patient preferences and the stage of the disease rather than the age of the patient.[22,23,24] Racial differences in overall survival after adjuvant therapy have been observed, without differences in disease-free survival, suggesting that comorbid conditions play a role in survival outcome in different patient populations.
Because of the frequency of the disease, ability to identify high-risk groups, demonstrated slow growth of primary lesions, better survival of patients with early-stage lesions, and relative simplicity and accuracy of screening tests, screening for colon cancer should be a part of routine care for all adults aged 50 years or older, especially for those with first-degree relatives with colorectal cancer. Groups that have a high incidence of colorectal cancer include those with hereditary conditions, such as familial polyposis, HNPCC or Lynch syndrome variants I and II, and those with a personal history of ulcerative colitis or Crohn colitis.[26,27] Together, they account for 10% to 15% of colorectal cancers. Patients with HNPCC reportedly have better prognoses in stage-stratified survival analysis than patients with sporadic colorectal cancer, but the retrospective nature of the studies and possibility of selection factors make this observation difficult to interpret.[Level of evidence: 3iiiA] More common conditions with an increased risk include a personal history of colorectal cancer or adenomas; first-degree family history of colorectal cancer or adenomas; and a personal history of ovarian, endometrial, or breast cancer.[29,30] These high-risk groups account for only 23% of all colorectal cancers. Limiting screening or early cancer detection to only these high-risk groups would miss the majority of colorectal cancers. (Refer to the PDQ summaries on Colorectal Cancer Screening and Colorectal Cancer Prevention for more information.)
Following treatment of colon cancer, periodic evaluations may lead to the earlier identification and management of recurrent disease.[32,33,34,35] The impact of such monitoring on overall mortality of patients with recurrent colon cancer, however, is limited by the relatively small proportion of patients in whom localized, potentially curable metastases are found. To date, no large-scale randomized trials have documented the efficacy of a standard, postoperative monitoring program.[36,37,38,39,40] CEA is a serum glycoprotein frequently used in the management of patients with colon cancer. A review of the use of this tumor marker suggests the following:
- A CEA level is not a valuable screening test for colorectal cancer because of the large numbers of false-positive and false-negative reports.
- Postoperative CEA testing should be restricted to patients who would be candidates for resection of liver or lung metastases.
- Routine use of CEA levels alone for monitoring response to treatment should not be recommended.
The optimal regimen and frequency of follow-up examinations are not well defined because the impact on patient survival is not clear, and the quality of data is poor.[38,39,40] New surveillance methods, including CEA immunoscintigraphy  and positron emission tomography, are under clinical evaluation.
Gastrointestinal stromal tumors can occur in the colon. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors Treatment for more information.)
Other PDQ summaries containing information related to colon cancer include the following:
- Colorectal Cancer Prevention
- Colorectal Cancer Screening
- Genetics of Colorectal Cancer
- Unusual Cancers of Childhood Treatment (childhood cancer of the colon)
- American Cancer Society.: Cancer Facts and Figures 2011. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society, 2011. Also available online. Last accessed December 1, 2011.
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- Swanson RS, Compton CC, Stewart AK, et al.: The prognosis of T3N0 colon cancer is dependent on the number of lymph nodes examined. Ann Surg Oncol 10 (1): 65-71, 2003 Jan-Feb.
- Le Voyer TE, Sigurdson ER, Hanlon AL, et al.: Colon cancer survival is associated with increasing number of lymph nodes analyzed: a secondary survey of intergroup trial INT-0089. J Clin Oncol 21 (15): 2912-9, 2003.
- Prandi M, Lionetto R, Bini A, et al.: Prognostic evaluation of stage B colon cancer patients is improved by an adequate lymphadenectomy: results of a secondary analysis of a large scale adjuvant trial. Ann Surg 235 (4): 458-63, 2002.
- Tepper JE, O'Connell MJ, Niedzwiecki D, et al.: Impact of number of nodes retrieved on outcome in patients with rectal cancer. J Clin Oncol 19 (1): 157-63, 2001.
- McLeod HL, Murray GI: Tumour markers of prognosis in colorectal cancer. Br J Cancer 79 (2): 191-203, 1999.
- Jen J, Kim H, Piantadosi S, et al.: Allelic loss of chromosome 18q and prognosis in colorectal cancer. N Engl J Med 331 (4): 213-21, 1994.
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- Johnston PG, Fisher ER, Rockette HE, et al.: The role of thymidylate synthase expression in prognosis and outcome of adjuvant chemotherapy in patients with rectal cancer. J Clin Oncol 12 (12): 2640-7, 1994.
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- Gryfe R, Kim H, Hsieh ET, et al.: Tumor microsatellite instability and clinical outcome in young patients with colorectal cancer. N Engl J Med 342 (2): 69-77, 2000.
- Iwashyna TJ, Lamont EB: Effectiveness of adjuvant fluorouracil in clinical practice: a population-based cohort study of elderly patients with stage III colon cancer. J Clin Oncol 20 (19): 3992-8, 2002.
- Chiara S, Nobile MT, Vincenti M, et al.: Advanced colorectal cancer in the elderly: results of consecutive trials with 5-fluorouracil-based chemotherapy. Cancer Chemother Pharmacol 42 (4): 336-40, 1998.
- Popescu RA, Norman A, Ross PJ, et al.: Adjuvant or palliative chemotherapy for colorectal cancer in patients 70 years or older. J Clin Oncol 17 (8): 2412-8, 1999.
- Dignam JJ, Colangelo L, Tian W, et al.: Outcomes among African-Americans and Caucasians in colon cancer adjuvant therapy trials: findings from the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project. J Natl Cancer Inst 91 (22): 1933-40, 1999.
- Thorson AG, Knezetic JA, Lynch HT: A century of progress in hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome). Dis Colon Rectum 42 (1): 1-9, 1999.
- Smith RA, von Eschenbach AC, Wender R, et al.: American Cancer Society guidelines for the early detection of cancer: update of early detection guidelines for prostate, colorectal, and endometrial cancers. Also: update 2001--testing for early lung cancer detection. CA Cancer J Clin 51 (1): 38-75; quiz 77-80, 2001 Jan-Feb.
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