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Childhood Colorectal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version

General Information About Childhood Colorectal Cancer

Key Points

  • Colorectal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the colon or the rectum.
  • Having certain inherited syndromes increases the risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer include pain in the abdomen, constipation, and diarrhea.
  • Tests that examine the colon and rectum are used to diagnose colorectal cancer.
  • Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery).

Colorectal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the colon or the rectum.

The colon is part of the body's digestive system. The digestive system removes and processes nutrients (vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and water) from foods and helps pass waste material out of the body. The digestive system is made up of the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, and the small and large intestines. In an adult, the colon (large bowel) is the first part of the large intestine and is about 5 feet long. Together, the rectum and anal canal make up the last part of the large intestine and are 6 to 8 inches long. The anal canal ends at the anus (the opening of the large intestine to the outside of the body).

Having certain inherited syndromes increases the risk of colorectal cancer.

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your child's doctor if you think your child may be at risk.

Childhood colorectal cancer may be part of an inherited syndrome. Some colorectal cancers in young people are linked to a gene mutation that causes polyps (growths in the mucous membrane that lines the colon) to form that may turn into cancer later. The risk of colorectal cancer is increased by having inherited conditions, such as the following:

Polyps that form in the colon of children who do not have an inherited syndrome are not linked to an increased risk of cancer.

Signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer include pain in the abdomen, constipation, and diarrhea.

Signs and symptoms of childhood colorectal cancer usually depend on where the tumor forms. These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by colorectal cancer or by other conditions.

Check with your child's doctor if your child has any of the following:

  • Tumors of the rectum or lower colon may cause pain in the abdomen, constipation, or diarrhea.
  • Tumors in the part of the colon on the left side of the body may cause:
    • A lump in the abdomen.
    • Weight loss for no known reason.
    • Nausea and vomiting.
    • Loss of appetite.
    • Blood in the stool.
    • Anemia (tiredness, dizziness, fast or irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, pale skin).
  • Tumors in the part of the colon on the right side of the body may cause:
    • Pain in the abdomen.
    • Blood in the stool.
    • Constipation or diarrhea.
    • Nausea and vomiting.
    • Weight loss for no known reason.

Tests that examine the colon and rectum are used to diagnose colorectal cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and health history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Colonoscopy: A procedure to look inside the rectum and colon for polyps, abnormal areas, or cancer. A colonoscope is inserted through the rectum into the colon. A colonoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It also has a tool to remove polyps or tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
  • Barium enema: A series of x-rays of the lower gastrointestinal tract. A liquid that contains barium (a silver-white metallic compound) is put into the rectum. The barium coats the lower gastrointestinal tract and x-rays are taken. This procedure is also called a lower GI series.
  • Fecal occult blood test: A test to check stool (solid waste) for blood that can only be seen with a microscope. Small samples of stool are placed on special cards and returned to the doctor or laboratory for testing.
  • Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
  • Carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) assay: A test that measures the level of CEA in the blood. CEA is released into the bloodstream from both cancer cells and normal cells. When found in higher than normal amounts, it can be a sign of colorectal cancer or other conditions.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery).

Prognosis depends on the following:

Stages of Colorectal Cancer

Key Points

  • After colorectal cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the colon or rectum or to other parts of the body.
  • There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
  • Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.

After colorectal cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the colon or rectum or to other parts of the body.

To plan treatment, it is important to know whether cancer cells have spread within the colon or rectum or to other parts of the body. The process used to find out if cancer has spread is called staging. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The results of the tests used to diagnose cancer are often also used to stage the disease. (See the General Information section.)

In children, the cancer has often spread to the lymph nodes, outside the colon or rectum, or to other organs in the abdomen at diagnosis. The following tests and procedures may be used to find out if cancer has spread:

  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas of the body, such as the chest, abdomen, and pelvis. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the chest, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • Bone scan: A procedure to check if there are rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones with cancer and is detected by a scanner.
    EnlargeBone scan; drawing shows a child lying on a table that slides under the scanner, a technician operating the scanner, and a computer monitor that will show images made during the scan.
    Bone scan. A small amount of radioactive material is injected into the child's vein and travels through the blood. The radioactive material collects in the bones. As the child lies on a table that slides under the scanner, the radioactive material is detected and images are made on a computer screen.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.

Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.

When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.

  • Lymph system. The cancer gets into the lymph system, travels through the lymph vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer gets into the blood, travels through the blood vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.

The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if colorectal cancer spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually colorectal cancer cells. The disease is metastatic colorectal cancer, not bone cancer.

Many cancer deaths are caused when cancer moves from the original tumor and spreads to other tissues and organs. This is called metastatic cancer. This animation shows how cancer cells travel from the place in the body where they first formed to other parts of the body.

Treatment Option Overview

Key Points

  • There are different types of treatment for children with colorectal cancer.
  • Children with colorectal cancer should have their treatment planned by a team of doctors who are experts in treating childhood cancer.
  • Four types of standard treatment are used:
    • Surgery
    • Radiation therapy
    • Chemotherapy
    • Immunotherapy
  • New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
    • Targeted therapy
  • Treatment for childhood colorectal cancer may cause side effects.
  • Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
  • Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
  • Follow-up tests may be needed.

There are different types of treatment for children with colorectal cancer.

Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment.

Because cancer in children is rare, taking part in a clinical trial should be considered. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Children with colorectal cancer should have their treatment planned by a team of doctors who are experts in treating childhood cancer.

Treatment will be overseen by a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. The pediatric oncologist works with other pediatric health professionals who are experts in treating children with cancer and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. This may include the following specialists and others:

Four types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

Surgery to remove the cancer is done if the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body at diagnosis.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). Chemotherapy using more than one drug is called combination chemotherapy.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer.

Immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy is a type of immunotherapy. Some types of immune cells, such as T cells, and some cancer cells have certain proteins, called checkpoint proteins, on their surface that keep immune responses in check. When cancer cells have large amounts of these proteins, they will not be attacked and killed by T cells. Immune checkpoint inhibitors block these proteins and the ability of T cells to kill cancer cells is increased.

Immunotherapy uses the body’s immune system to fight cancer. This animation explains one type of immunotherapy that uses immune checkpoint inhibitors to treat cancer.

There are two types of immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy:

  • PD-1 immune checkpoint inhibitor. PD-1 is a protein on the surface of T cells that helps keep the body’s immune responses in check. When PD-1 attaches to another protein called PDL-1 on a cancer cell, it stops the T cell from killing the cancer cell. PD-1 inhibitors attach to PDL-1 and allow the T cells to kill cancer cells. Nivolumab has been used to treat children 12 years and older with recurrent colorectal cancer.
    EnlargeImmune checkpoint inhibitor; the panel on the left shows the binding of proteins PD-L1 (on the tumor cell) to PD-1 (on the T cell), which keeps T cells from killing tumor cells in the body. Also shown are a tumor cell antigen and T cell receptor. The panel on the right shows immune checkpoint inhibitors (anti-PD-L1 and anti-PD-1) blocking the binding of PD-L1 to PD-1, which allows the T cells to kill tumor cells.
    Immune checkpoint inhibitor. Checkpoint proteins, such as PD-L1 on tumor cells and PD-1 on T cells, help keep immune responses in check. The binding of PD-L1 to PD-1 keeps T cells from killing tumor cells in the body (left panel). Blocking the binding of PD-L1 to PD-1 with an immune checkpoint inhibitor (anti-PD-L1 or anti-PD-1) allows the T cells to kill tumor cells (right panel).
    Immunotherapy uses the body’s immune system to fight cancer. This animation explains one type of immunotherapy that uses immune checkpoint inhibitors to treat cancer.
  • CTLA-4 inhibitor. CTLA-4 is a protein on the surface of T cells that helps keep the body’s immune responses in check. When CTLA-4 attaches to another protein called B7 on a cancer cell, it stops the T cell from killing the cancer cell. CTLA-4 inhibitors attach to CTLA-4 and allow the T cells to kill cancer cells. Ipilimumab is used to treat children 12 years and older with recurrent colorectal cancer.
    EnlargeImmune checkpoint inhibitor; the panel on the left shows the binding of the T-cell receptor (TCR) to antigen and MHC proteins on the antigen-presenting cell (APC) and the  binding of CD28 on the T cell to B7-1/B7-2 on the APC. It also shows the binding of B7-1/B7-2 to CTLA-4 on the T cell, which keeps the T cells in the inactive state. The panel on the right shows immune checkpoint inhibitor (anti-CTLA antibody) blocking the binding of B7-1/B7-2 to CTLA-4, which allows the T cells to be active and to kill tumor cells.
    Immune checkpoint inhibitor. Checkpoint proteins, such as B7-1/B7-2 on antigen-presenting cells (APC) and CTLA-4 on T cells, help keep the body’s immune responses in check. When the T-cell receptor (TCR) binds to antigen and major histocompatibility complex (MHC) proteins on the APC and CD28 binds to B7-1/B7-2 on the APC, the T cell can be activated. However, the binding of B7-1/B7-2 to CTLA-4 keeps the T cells in the inactive state so they are not able to kill tumor cells in the body (left panel). Blocking the binding of B7-1/B7-2 to CTLA-4 with an immune checkpoint inhibitor (anti-CTLA-4 antibody) allows the T cells to be active and to kill tumor cells (right panel).

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to attack cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do.

Targeted therapy is being studied for the treatment of childhood colorectal cancer that has recurred (come back).

Treatment for childhood colorectal cancer may cause side effects.

For information about side effects that begin during treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.

Side effects from cancer treatment that begin after treatment and continue for months or years are called late effects. Late effects of cancer treatment may include the following:

  • Physical problems.
  • Changes in mood, feelings, thinking, learning, or memory.
  • Second cancers (new types of cancer) or other conditions.

Some late effects may be treated or controlled. It is important to talk with your child's doctors about the possible late effects caused by some treatments. See the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for more information.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI’s clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your child's condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Treatment of Childhood Colorectal Cancer

For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.

Treatment of newly diagnosed colorectal cancer in children may include the following:

Children with certain familial colorectal cancer syndromes may be treated with the following:

  • Surgery to remove the colon before cancer forms.
  • Medicine to decrease the number of polyps in the colon.

Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.

Treatment of Recurrent Childhood Colorectal Cancer

For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.

Recurrent colorectal cancer has come back after it has been treated in the colon or rectum or in other parts of the body. Treatment of recurrent colorectal cancer in children may include the following:

Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.

To Learn More About Childhood Colorectal Cancer

About This PDQ Summary

About PDQ

Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.

PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government’s center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.

Purpose of This Summary

This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of childhood colorectal cancer. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.

Reviewers and Updates

Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Updated") is the date of the most recent change.

The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board.

Clinical Trial Information

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

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PDQ® Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Childhood Colorectal Cancer Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/colorectal/patient/child-colorectal-treament-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.

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