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 metastatic 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: For some tumors, proton therapy can be a precise treatment that limits the radiation exposure to healthy tissues around the targeted tumor. This precision may help doctors spare unnecessary radiation dose to critical areas of the body including the liver, kidneys, bowels, bladder and bone marrow.

The Northwestern Medicine Proton Center is the first proton center 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.