Colon and Rectal Cancer Treatments

Treatment for colon and rectal cancer may include a single treatment or a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or targeted therapies.


The primary treatment for colorectal cancer is often surgical removal (called resection) of the cancerous portion and surrounding lymph nodes, along with a length of normal tissue on either side of the cancer.

Northwestern Medicine has specialized surgical oncologists who have expertise in colorectal cancer surgery including liver resection and ablation. Many of these surgeries can be done using a minimally invasive approach.


Medicines are administered either through the veins or by mouth to interfere with the cancer cells’ reproduction. Your experienced medical oncologist will determine the best combination of medications for your stage of cancer. Chemotherapy after surgery can increase the survival rate for patients with some stages of colorectal cancer. It can also help relieve symptoms of advanced cancer.

Radiation therapy

Your radiation oncologist will talk to you about the best options for your diagnosis. Radiation therapy options include:

  • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)High-precision radiotherapy delivers exact radiation doses to a malignant (cancerous) tumor.
  • Gamma Knife® radiosurgery (stereotactic radiotherapy): This radiation procedure delivers a single high-dose radiation treatment or a few fractionated radiation treatments to a malignant tumor.
  • Proton therapy: One of the most precise forms of radiation therapy, proton treatment can be highly controlled so most of the radiation ends up directly in the tumor. This reduces the risk of damage to surrounding healthy tissues and causes fewer short- and long-term side effects. Northwestern Medicine Proton Center* is the first and only health system in Illinois–and the ninth in the country–to offer proton therapy.

Targeted therapies

  • Radioembolization: Interventional radiologists place tiny beads of radioactive isotopes (yttrium-90 or Y-90) directly in the blood vessels that feed a liver tumor. This blocks the tumor's blood supply, delivers radiation and spares healthy tissue. This minimally invasive procedures may be used if your colorectal cancer has spread to the liver.
  • Chemoembolization: A specially trained interventional radiologist can provide anticancer drugs directly into a tumor through its feeding blood supply. This allows for a higher concentration of the drug to be in contact with the tumor for a longer period of time.
  • Ablation therapiesAblation therapies include microwave ablation and radiofrequency ablation. Ablation treatment destroys tumors without removing them. These procedures may be used when surgery is not a good option because of poor health or reduced liver function. Often, ablation can be done without surgery by inserting a needle or probe into the tumor through the skin.

Palliative medicine

Side effects from cancer treatment can affect your quality of life and your body’s ability to respond to treatment. Northwestern Medicine is home to a diverse team of palliative medicine specialists who work with your oncologist to help relieve your pain and manage your symptoms. Palliative medicine specialists provide care to:

  • Treat pain and other physical symptoms of cancer, such as fatigue, nausea, trouble sleeping, poor appetite, breathing problems and weight loss.
  • Treat emotional symptoms, such as depression and anxiety.
  • Improve your body’s ability to tolerate cancer treatments.
  • Help you better understand tests, procedures and options.
  • Guide you and those who care for you to helpful outside resources.

Throughout your care, the palliative medicine team can help you remain stronger in your fight against cancer and feel better, every step of the way.

Clinical trials

You may be eligible to participate in clinical trials that focus on preventing and treating colorectal cancer. 


Colorectal cancer treatment depends on your overall health, extent of the disease and your tolerance for various therapies. The sequence and combination of treatment will depend on the site and stage of your cancer.


The physicians who practice at the Northwestern Medicine Proton Center are neither agents nor employees of Northwestern Memorial HealthCare or any of its affiliate organizations. These physicians have selected our facilities as the place where they want to treat and care for their private patients.