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Colorectal Cancer: New Treatments, Improved Prognosis

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

Treatment Before Surgery for Colorectal Cancer

Traditionally, chemotherapy and radiation have been used after surgery. This approach is called adjuvant therapy. The goal is to kill any cancer cells that might have survived the operation.

But doctors are also using an approach called neoadjuvant therapy -- treatment before surgery. The advantage is that the treatment can make the tumor smaller and easier to remove surgically.

"There's growing acceptance that using chemotherapy and radiation before surgery is more convenient and gives better results," Hoff says. "It's a trend that's gaining momentum around the world, but especially in the U.S."

Keeping Treatment Advances in Perspective

While these advances in treatment are cause for enthusiasm, none of them are the magic bullet that researchers hoped to discover.

Saltz points out that the average life expectancy for someone with metastatic colon cancer in 1995 was about 11 months. Now in 2006, using the best treatments, it's about two years.

"There are two ways to look at those numbers," says Saltz. "You could say that it's great that over the last decade, we doubled the life expectancy of someone with metastatic colon cancer. On the other hand, you could also say that over the last ten years, all we managed to do was add about twelve months. Both statements are true."

But experts agree that while the steps may be frustratingly small, we are still moving forward. They may not be flashy, but some of the most important advances may come in the details -- tinkering with different dosages, treatment regimens, and combinations of drugs. Hopefully, with time and research, all of these smaller steps may add up to something big.

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Reviewed on July 07, 2008

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