What’s the Outlook for Stage IV Colon Cancer?

When your doctor tells you that you have colon cancer that has spread to other parts of your body, you will naturally have lots of questions, including what it will mean for your future.

Everyone is different. Even if the disease cannot be cured, there are treatments that may help you live longer and with less pain so that your quality of life is as good as possible.

You'll want to work with a doctor who specializes in treating stage IV colon cancer. You can also ask for a second opinion so you feel confident that you understand your situation and options.

After Your Treatment

Your doctor will treat your colon cancer with surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapies, radiation, or a combination of these treatments. If one treatment doesn't work or stops working, you may be able to try something else.

After you're done, you will have follow-up visits with your doctor every few months. One reason to see your doctor is to manage any treatment side effects you have.

Your doctor will also do tests to make sure your cancer hasn't come back. Cancer that returns is called a recurrence. Colon cancer is most likely to recur in the first 5 years after you're treated.

If your cancer does come back, seeing your doctor regularly will help find it early, when it's easiest to treat. Ask your doctor what the symptoms of a recurrence might look like. Call right away if you notice these symptoms.

You'll have the best outcome if you stay healthy during your recovery from colon cancer treatment. Follow these tips:

Clinical Trials

If you have tried a few colon cancer treatments and they didn't work, or they stopped working, you may have another option: a clinical trial.

Scientists look for new ways to treat stage IV colon cancer in clinical trials. These trials test new treatments to see if they are safe and if they work. They are often a way for people to try a new medicine that isn't available to everyone. Your doctor can tell you if one of these trials might be a good fit for you.

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Palliative Care

There's more to your medical care than drugs or surgery that target the cancer. Your doctors should also help you manage any pain that you have as a result of the cancer. Your social, emotional, and spiritual health may also need support as you deal with such a serious illness.

Palliative care does all of that. It's not the same as hospice, and it's not only for people who are near death. You'll still get all your other medical care to fight the cancer. Palliative care is in addition to, not instead of, other treatments.

The National Cancer Institute states that palliative care "should begin at diagnosis" and focus on your quality of life. Doctors, nurses, dietitians, pharmacists, and social workers are some of the health professionals who help with that. They can be an invaluable resource as you go through the disease.

The Big Picture

If one of the questions on your mind is about survival rates for your cancer, you'll want to get some perspective first. The statistics don't tell the whole story.

Survival rates are like the view from 30,000 feet: They're broad but not super-detailed. These figures are estimates of how long people with a certain type of cancer and stage might live. Stage IV colon cancer has a relative 5-year survival rate of about 14%. This means that about 14% of people with stage IV colon cancer are likely to still be alive 5 years after they are diagnosed.

But you're not a number. No one, including your doctor, can tell you exactly how long you'll live. Your outlook depends on a lot of things, including your age, health, where the cancer has spread, and the kind of treatment you get.

Keep in mind that the numbers are changing -- for the better.

A growing number of people with stage IV colon cancer live longer than 2 years. And for a small group of people with cancer that has only spread to your liver or lung, surgery might even cure it.

Also remember that survival rates are based on studies that were done a few years ago. As treatments improve, these numbers can rise.

In the past, colon cancer was harder to treat once it had spread. Advances in treatment have improved the outlook by slowing down the cancer.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on September 29, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: "Treatment of colon cancer, by stage," "What are the survival rates for colorectal cancer, by stage?"

American Society of Clinical Oncology: "Colorectal Cancer: Statistics," "Follow-Up Care for Colorectal Cancer."

Bartlett, D. Oncology, March 2012.

Cleveland Clinic: "Colorectal Cancer -- Prognosis/Outlook."

Fight Colorectal Cancer: "Survival Statistics."

Kemeny, N. Journal of Clinical Oncology, June 2013.

National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program: "SEER Stat Fact Sheets: Colon and Rectum Cancer."

UpToDate: "Patient information: Colorectal cancer treatment; metastatic cancer (Beyond the Basics)."

National Cancer Institute: “Palliative Care in Cancer.”

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