September 20, 2023

GI Cancers and Colorectal Cancer: How Are They Treated?

GI Cancers and Colorectal Cancer: How Are They Treated?

Gastrointestinal (GI) cancer is a broad category that includes cancers of the entire digestive system. The digestive system consists of your mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and anus. Each area of the body in the digestive system is prone to developing cancer, including colorectal cancer, the most common type of GI cancer.

Depending on which type of GI cancer is diagnosed, a different set of treatments is recommended by the oncologist. The right selection for each patient is based on the stage, location, and even genetic mutations that may exist, which can be targeted by anti-cancer drugs.

How Are GI Cancer Treatments Different?

The treatment method that your oncologist recommends for your specific type of GI cancer is largely based on its extent, called the stage of cancer.

Staging GI Cancers

The staging process gives your cancer specialist an idea of how advanced the cancer is and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. Stage 1 cancer is considered localized or early-stage cancer, and stage 4 is the most advanced and has affected other areas of the body. Stage 4 cancer is also called metastatic.

The stage of cancer influences several things about a cancer treatment plan, such as;

  • The order of treatments, including when surgery should be performed — if at all.

  • Which treatments will be the most effective

  • The future outlook for how long you can expect to survive; also called the prognosis

  • Whether you are eligible for a clinical trial

Colorectal and GI Cancer Treatment Options: How are they alike and different?

Some common treatment approaches for colorectal and GI cancer include:


Surgery is commonly used for all GI cancers. However, for stage 3 or 4 colorectal cancer, it may not be possible to perform surgery that would remove all of the cancer, so other methods are used. The type of surgery is specific to the type of GI cancer.

  • Colon Cancer:
    • Surgery to remove polyps. Polyps are small clumps of cells that exist in the GI tract. Sometimes, this is where the cancer is located. This type of surgery is performed during a colonoscopy and is usually recommended when the cancer is contained to only the polyps. Polyp removal is usually used when treating stage 0 and stage 1 colon cancer.

    • Partial colectomy. Your doctor may recommend removing some parts of your colon in order to remove the cancer. This treatment is usually used in treating stage 1 or stage 2 cancer that has spread to a larger portion of the colon rather than being isolated to just the polyps.

  • Esophagus Cancer:
    • Surgery to remove the esophagus. A surgeon will remove all or part of the esophagus and the nearby lymph nodes through an incision in the chest or abdomen.

  • Stomach Cancer:
    • Surgery to remove part or all of the stomach. A gastrectomy is a common surgical approach for stomach cancer, which involves removing some or all of the stomach in order to remove cancer cells.

  • Pancreatic Cancer:
    • Surgery to remove the head of the pancreas. A Whipple procedure is a common surgical approach for pancreatic cancer. This surgery removes the head of the pancreas. Surgery is used for pancreatic cancer when the cancer cells are contained in the pancreas only and have not spread to any other areas.

Medical Oncology Treatments for GI Cancers

Chemotherapy. These are anti-cancer drugs that are commonly used when cancer cells have grown outside of the initial site and into the nearby lymph nodes. This means the cancer cells are circulating through the body. A treatment that can also circulate throughout the body is needed.

When treating colorectal cancer, chemotherapy is often used in combination with surgery if there is too much cancer in the colon to be fully removed with surgery alone. Chemotherapy is commonly used in treating stage 2, stage 3, and stage 4 colorectal cancers.

There are many different chemotherapy regimens that vary depending on the type of GI cancer that a person has. Some of the common chemotherapy drugs used for colorectal cancer and different types of GI cancers are listed below.

  • Folfox is a common chemotherapy regimen used for treating colorectal cancer and stomach cancer.

  • Capox is a common chemotherapy drug used for treating stomach cancer.

  • Esophageal cancer is commonly treated using carboplatin and paclitaxel (Taxol).

  • One common chemotherapy drug used to treat pancreatic cancer is Gemcitabine.

Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy stimulates the body’s immune system to kill cancer cells. This therapy is more commonly used for advanced stages of colorectal and GI cancers.

Targeted therapy. Targeted therapy also uses drugs to treat cancer, but it is different from chemotherapy. This treatment method uses medication that is designed to attack certain biomarkers found in the cancer cells. This has become more prevalent in the colon cancer treatment process, especially for later stages.

Improved Colorectal Cancer Treatment Options as a Result of Biomarker Testing

Biomarker testing is a test that looks for specific molecules in body fluids, tissues, blood cells, and cancer cells called biomarkers, which are made by your genes. Biomarker test results give the oncologist a clearer picture of specific genetic mutations that determine the treatments that are most effective.

The ability to understand the human genome has opened up new ways for cancer researchers to develop targeted therapies that specifically treat colorectal cancers by targeting genetic mutations. Targeted therapy identifies and attacks cells producing the protein that fuels cancer cells while causing little damage to healthy ones. There are a variety of targeted therapies available based on the protein that is identified more in the clinical research process. Learn more about the genetics of colorectal cancers.

Radiation Therapy in the Treatment of GI Cancers

External beam radiation therapy is often used for GI cancers before surgery to shrink the tumor and after surgery to kill any cancer cells in the surgical area. The right timing is based on the stage of cancer and where it is located in the body. Not all GI cancer patients receive radiation therapy.

Clinical Trials and Cancer Research for Colorectal and Other GI Cancers

Clinical trials are currently underway to continuously find improved ways to treat colorectal cancer as well as many other types of cancer. It is through clinical trials that new targeted therapies are made available to patients with genetic mutations. Cancer Care Centers of Brevard actively participates in clinical trials for colorectal cancer. While not every patient is a candidate, talk to your oncologist about the most advanced treatments for your specific type of cancer and whether you’re a candidate for clinical trial participation.

Personalized GI and Colon Cancer Treatments in Brevard County, Florida

Every patient and their specific diagnosis are unique, so if you were recently diagnosed with colorectal cancer or any other GI cancer, it’s important to have a treatment plan created just for you. Personalized colorectal cancer treatment considers factors like your type of cancer, stage, and genetic mutations, as well as age and overall health, to plan your treatment. Feel free to read the answers to commonly asked questions about colorectal cancer for more information on this disease.

The GI and colorectal cancer doctors at Cancer Care Centers of Brevard offer leading-edge cancer treatment for all types of GI cancers, including colon and rectal cancers. Our practice serves several different areas in Florida, including Melbourne, Merritt Island, Sebastian, and Palm Bay. Schedule a consultation with one of our experienced oncologists today.


Related Reading:

Colon and Rectal Cancers: What Are the Differences?

doctor discussing colon cancer and rectal cancer with patient

Categories: Colorectal Cancer