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Our Approach to Colon and Rectal Cancer Treatment

  • An Introduction to Colorectal Cancer
    Jeffrey Meyerhardt, MD, MPH, provides an overview on colorectal cancer, including common treatments and recent research.

  • Our specialized team

    Patients who come to the Colon and Rectal Cancer Center are seen by our highly specialized team, including some of the best practitioners in every medical discipline. Our experts' accomplishments include advancing national standards of care, conducting breakthrough research, spearheading international studies of new drugs, and forming innovative methods of preventing, diagnosing, and treating colorectal cancer.

    Because we are a highly specialized treatment center with clinicians who exclusively treat these diseases, we focus on the distinct needs of people with colon and rectal cancer. This includes patients who are at every stage of the disease, from premalignant lesions to advanced malignancy that has spread to the liver or other organs. Our nurses are certified and trained in oncology nursing and specialize in caring for patients entering into, undergoing, or recovering from gastrointestinal cancer treatments.

    Our physician-scientists also focus on survivorship care and have researched how lifestyle (including diet, caffeine, and exercise) impact recurrence. The results of these discoveries are integrated into treatment plans for every patient.

    Comprehensive care

    Our goal is to make every patient's experience at once streamlined and comprehensive. As part of your visit to the Center, we may recommend that you meet with a genetic counselor to be evaluated for inherited risks of colorectal (and other) cancers. Patients who test positive for specific syndromes are seen, at minimum, on an annual basis for ongoing management and counseling. We also provide genetic testing and support for family members who may be predisposed to colorectal cancer.

    If you have surgery, you will be put on an Enhanced Recovery After Surgery pathway that we developed specifically for patients with colorectal cancer to speed up the recovery process and minimize complications. This helps you return to normal functioning earlier than you would with traditional colorectal surgical protocols.

    Personalized care

    Our priority is to treat each patient as an individual who deserves our utmost respect, compassion, and empathy. Our caregivers understand how difficult a diagnosis of colorectal cancer can be, and we are committed to finding the very best ways to meet the unique needs of each patient and their family.

    More and more, targeted therapies focus on specific molecular changes in a patient's individual tumor. Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center (DF/BWCC) is a leader in precision cancer medicine (also called personalized medicine). As a patient, you are offered testing of your tumor for genetic mutations. Findings from this test enable your team to create personalized treatment strategies for you, whether through standard treatments or through clinical trial therapies that may be more effective in combating your tumor. We conduct clinical trials focused on therapies that target particular changes or mutations in a tumor, including immunotherapy trials.

    If you have a genetic syndrome in addition to colon or rectal cancer, you will be seen by physicians who specialize in treatments for patients who need customized surveillance after treatment.

    View a slide show about research driving targeted gastrointestinal therapies looking at the genome (DNA).

    Support programs

    We understand that cancer treatment can be challenging, both physically and emotionally. Our patients and their families have access to our full range of support services throughout treatment and recovery. This includes counseling and social work, exercise classes and consults, psychosocial support, pain and symptom management (also called palliative care), integrative therapies, and support groups.

    Many of our patients work with nutrition services and meal planning counselors from the very beginning of their treatment. If you need a colostomy, you can work with specialized nurses and social workers who will teach you how to care for your colostomy and how you can be most comfortable.

    Innovation and research

    A dedicated research program drives our care. Physician-scientists at the Colon and Rectal Cancer Center are on the forefront of cancer research — establishing ways to improve patients' clinical and surgical outcomes, conducting international clinical trials, and partnering with basic science researchers to bring the newest treatments to patients.

    Our experts in each specialty are leaders in their respective fields, regularly publishing their discoveries about new therapies, underlying mechanisms of these diseases, surgical techniques, genetic discoveries, screening, and early detection. They study every aspect of these diseases, from how they develop, to the roles that diet, caffeine, and exercise play in the health of survivors. Our discovery breakthroughs include:

    • Aspirin may improve survival in patients who have already been diagnosed with colorectal cancers. Study results indicate that colorectal cancer patients who regularly took aspirin after their diagnosis had a nearly 30 percent lower risk of dying from their disease during the first decade after diagnosis than did non-aspirin users.
    • Patients who are physically active after diagnosis have a lower risk of recurrence and improved survival. Our team published the first studies on exercise and colorectal cancer survival, which now have been confirmed by other groups and incorporated into national and international guidelines on the care of colon and rectal cancer survivors.
    • Patients diagnosed with colon cancer who had abundant vitamin D in their blood have better survival rates than those who were deficient in the vitamin. Also, patients with stage IV colon or rectal cancer have very low levels of vitamin D. Researchers are planning a clinical trial in which these patients will take vitamin D along with standard chemotherapy.

    Multidisciplinary care

    Our innovative approach is reflected in our distinctive collaborative, multidisciplinary model of care that involves physicians, nurses, researchers, and our many support service providers. Specialists from gastroenterology, endoscopy, pathology, radiology, colorectal surgery, surgical oncology, medical oncology, and radiation oncology meet regularly to integrate care plans across specialties, streamline patient communication, and ensure that every treatment approach is considered, every step of the way.

    Our expertise makes us a resource

    We share our deep level of expertise by educating patients and practitioners about the latest diagnostics and treatments for people with colon and rectal cancer, and our discoveries about ways to help prevent recurrence. Our specialists regularly speak at educational conferences for the medical community, give talks on colorectal cancer throughout the world, and participate in tumor boards at various hospitals.

    In addition, our Center:

    • Offers second-opinion consultations and guidance to colleagues throughout the country.
    • Trains future leaders in all facets of colorectal cancer.
    • Functions as a home and collaborative hub for research studies on colorectal cancer.
    • Provides a model for patient-centered care built on the foundation of leading-edge research.
    • Works with local surgeons, oncologists, and radiation therapists throughout New England as part of the Partners Healthcare System.
    • Refers to the Adult Survivorship Program, which provides access to specialists, such as cardiologists, endocrinologists, and gynecologists, as well as education and support to manage care after completing treatment.