Click a letter to see a list of conditions beginning with that letter.
Click 'Topic Index' to return to the index for the current topic.
Click 'Library Index' to return to the listing of all topics.

Colorectal Cancer: Adjuvant Therapy After Surgery

Surgery is the main treatment for cancer in the colon or rectum. Surgery often fully treats the cancer. But by the time the cancer is found, and surgery is done, some tumors may have grown through the wall of the colon or rectum and into nearby tissue. In some cases, cancer cells may have spread to other parts of the body. And sometimes tiny tumor cells that can’t be seen may be left behind during surgery. Your healthcare provider may suggest adjuvant therapy as a way to make sure that all cancer cells left behind are killed.

Adjuvant therapy is more cancer treatment that's done after surgery. It may help reduce the risk of cancer coming back in some people. It might include chemotherapy (chemo) after surgery. This can kill any cancer cells that are left. The chemo might be given along with radiation. Radiation treatment uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.

The stage of your cancer helps your healthcare team know if you are more likely to benefit from adjuvant therapy. It's most often used to treat stages II and III colon cancers and might be used in any stage of rectal cancer.

Stage II colon cancer

In this stage, cancer has usually grown through the colon wall. But it hasn’t spread to lymph nodes. Adjuvant therapy isn't commonly used but might be advised for people with a high-risk of the cancer coming back due to certain factors. These factors include:

  • The tumor caused bowel blockage or leakage

  • The tumor had grown into nearby blood or lymph vessels

  • Tumor tissue stuck to nearby organs and the surgeon can't be sure all the tumor was removed

  • Tumor cells look very abnormal under a microscope (high grade)

  • Tumor cells that have gene changes that predict a worse prognosis

  • Fewer than 12 lymph nodes were removed and checked during surgery

If you have one or more of these risk factors, you may be treated with 1 of the regimens noted below for stage III colon cancer.

Stage III colon cancer

Stage III colon cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. It has not spread to other parts of the body. Adjuvant chemo after surgery is standard treatment for this stage of colon cancer. It's often given for about 6 months. (In some cases, only 3 months of treatment are recommended.)

The most common adjuvant regimens are:

  • FOLFOX. This includes the drugs folinic acid (leucovorin), fluorouracil (5-FU), and oxaliplatin. It's given every 2 weeks.

  • CapeOx. This includes the drugs capecitabine (which is a pill) and oxaliplatin, given every 3 weeks.

Other choices are:

  • Fluorouracil and leucovorin weekly

  • Capecitabine on its own

FOLFOX and CapeOx may better lower the chance the cancer will come back. But they also tend to have more side effects.

Rectal cancer

Rectal cancer is different than colon cancer. There is a greater chance that it will come back after surgery. The surgery is harder to do because it is done in a smaller space with the complicated rectal sphincter that is easily damaged. This means there's a greater chance that cancer cells may be left behind.

Chemo and radiation therapy plus surgery may increase the chance of longer survival. You may get chemo and radiation before surgery to shrink the tumor. This is called neoadjuvant therapy. Many healthcare providers now prefer to give radiation and chemotherapy before surgery, and more or adjuvant chemo afterward. These are standard treatments for both stage II and III rectal cancer. Often the same medicines are used as listed above for stage III colon cancer.

Research for other adjuvant treatment

Researchers continue to study new medicine combinations. They also study the best doses, methods, and schedules. New targeted medicines are also being studied to be used with chemo. You may want to talk with your healthcare provider about being in a research study. This is often the only way to get new treatments that are thought to be better than those commonly used.

Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Sabrina Felson MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2023
© 2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.