Sarah Cannon - April 25, 2022
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If you’ve been diagnosed with gastrointestinal (GI) cancer, you may wonder about your treatment options. The good news is that there are effective treatments available today and many have fewer side effects than ever before. Additionally, you may be a candidate for a clinical trial.

Types of GI cancer & common treatment options

GI cancer occurs in the digestive system and includes:

  • Colorectal (colon and rectal) cancer: The most common treatment options are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy.
  • Esophageal cancer: The most common treatments are surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation. Sometimes other treatments are recommended, such as endoscopic mucosal resection, laser ablation, electrocoagulation, esophageal stent, radiofrequency ablation, or photodynamic therapy (PDT).
  • Gallbladder cancer: The most common treatment options are potentially curative surgery (where imaging tests show there’s a good chance the surgeon can remove all of the cancer), palliative surgery to relieve pain and prevent complications, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, ablation and embolization.
  • Intestinal cancer: The most common treatments are surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
  • Liver cancer: The most common liver cancer treatments are surgery to remove the tumor, liver transplantation, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, ablation and embolization.
  • Pancreatic cancer: Treatments for pancreatic cancer include potentially curative surgery when it seems possible to remove all of the cancer, palliative surgery to relieve symptoms and prevent complications if the cancer cannot be completely removed, ablation, embolization, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
  • Stomach cancer: Treatments for stomach cancer can include gastrectomy (surgery to remove all or part of the stomach), chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation therapy.

Treatment for GI cancer

Your treatment options will vary depending on the type of cancer you have, what stage it is, your overall health, and other factors. Treatments can include:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor, lymph nodes and/or nearby tissues. Some people need an ostomy, which is a surgical procedure that creates an opening (stoma) in the body to allow for the removal of waste, like stool or urine. For example, if a portion of your colon or large intestines is removed, you may need a colostomy. If part of your small intestine is removed, you may need an ileostomy. Ostomies can be temporary or permanent.
  • Chemotherapy to kill cancer cells or make cancer cells more sensitive to other treatments, like radiation therapy. Chemotherapy may be given intravenously (through an IV) or orally (through pills).
  • Radiation therapy to destroy cancer cells that may remain after surgery. It’s often used in combination with surgery and chemotherapy. Radiation therapy can include external beam radiation, high-dose brachytherapy, or intensity-modulated radiotherapy.
  • Immunotherapy works with your body’s immune system to slow or stop the growth of cancer cells, making it easier for the immune system to kill the cancer cells or keep cancer cells from spreading elsewhere in the body.
  • Targeted therapy identifies, targets, and destroys specific tumor cells.
  • Ablation is a technique to destroy tumors without removing them, often by inserting a needle through the skin into the tumor. Techniques include radiofrequency ablation (using high-energy radio waves), microwave ablation (using electromagnetic waves), cryoablation (using very cold gasses) and alcohol ablation (using concentrated alcohol). Ablation is sometimes used along with embolization.
  • Embolization is when a catheter is used to find the blood vessel that feeds the tumor. Through the catheter, the surgeon places tiny beads called microspheres into the blood vessel to cut off the blood supply and kill the tumor. Sometimes the beads are radioactive. Other times, this procedure is used to deliver chemotherapy directly to the tumor.

You may also be a candidate for a clinical trial, which studies promising new cancer treatments. Ask your oncologist if a clinical trial is an option for you.

Your cancer care team will work closely with you to determine the right treatment options for your specific cancer, health, lifestyle, and goals. To learn more about GI cancer, visit Sarah Cannon’s blog, What you should know about GI cancers.  If you have questions about GI cancer, call askSARAH at 844-482-4812 or visit askSARAH online.