Chemotherapy for Rectal Cancer

Chemotherapy is a drug or a combination of drugs that attack cancer cells wherever they are in your body. Your treatment team can use it before or after rectal cancer surgery. At Memorial Sloan Kettering, our medical oncologists use advanced approaches to this kind of personalized medicine. They can customize your chemotherapy treatment based on detailed diagnostic information, such as the genetic features of your rectal tumor. This information can also help refine your plan of care, minimizing side effects as much as possible.

Personalized medicine for rectal cancer treatment

At MSK, patients with metastatic disease have their tumor tissue analyzed to look for specific genetic mutations. Knowing which mutations are present can help your medical oncologist determine which chemotherapy drugs will be most effective and minimize side effects.

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If you have locally advanced rectal cancer, or if the tumor is lying low in the rectum (near the anus), your treatment team may recommend chemotherapy before surgery. This is called neoadjuvant therapy. Chemotherapy can help shrink the tumor, making it easier to remove. Chemoradiation, a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, can also help shrink the tumor before surgery.

Some patients develop undetectable microscopic tumor cells that eventually can become new tumors. These cells could spread to other parts of your body. Because of this, your team may use adjuvant chemotherapy (chemotherapy given after primary therapy) to treat these microscopic cells and reduce the risk that the cancer will come back.