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Colorectal Cancer Health Center

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Colorectal Cancer: New Treatments, Improved Prognosis

New drugs show promise, but more research needs to be done.
WebMD Feature

While colorectal cancer remains one of the most deadly cancers in the U.S., researchers are making steady progress against this disease. New drugs allow people with even the most advanced metastatic disease to live longer. Admittedly, there's no cure, and the improvements -- which can add several months to a patient's life -- may seem modest.

But for people living with advanced colorectal cancer -- and their loved ones -- small improvements make a huge difference. And experts are confident that treatment will keep getting better.

"I think the attitude has changed among doctors, especially when it comes to metastatic colorectal cancer," says Paulo M. Hoff, MD, an oncologist at the MD Andersen Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston. "We used to have a pessimistic view. But now we're seeing more patients with metastatic cancer responding to treatment. They are also responding well for a longer time."

"We have more tools than ever before to treat colorectal cancer," says Leonard Saltz, MD, leader of the colorectal disease management team at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. "What we're doing now is learning how to use them most effectively."

A Turning Point in Treating Colorectal Cancer

For decades, medications for colorectal cancer were limited to two drugs, 5-fluorouracil and leucovorin. But in 1996, things began to change.

  • In 1996, the FDA approved Camptosar (irinotecan) for people with metastatic colorectal cancer that had recurred or spread beyond the colon. (Metastatic means that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.)

  • In 2002, the FDA approved the use of Eloxatin (oxaliplatin) in combination with 5-Fluorouracil and Leucovorin.

The new drugs improved survival to an extent. For example, one study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2004 found that adding Eloxatin to standard chemotherapy boosted survival among patients with advanced disease by 11%.

Advances in Targeted Therapies for Colorectal Cancer

Next, in 2004, came targeted therapies. Avastin (bevacizumab) and Erbitux (cetuximab) are monoclonal antibodies, a new generation of cancer drugs that can specifically target cancer tumors.

The problem with traditional chemotherapy is that it can't be focused. The drugs go through the body, affecting both cancerous cells and healthy cells alike. Targeted therapies affect the specific mechanisms that allow cancer cells to grow. As a result, they may have fewer side effects.

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