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  • Understanding Colon Cancer Metastatic Sites: Key Locations and Impact on Treatment

Metastatic colon cancer is a formidable challenge that requires a comprehensive understanding of the disease and its potential colon cancer metastatic sites. Equipped with this knowledge, patients and healthcare providers can work together to create personalized treatment plans that optimize outcomes. In this blog post, we will delve into the intricacies of colon cancer metastasis, discussing common colon cancer metastatic sites, treatment options, clinical trials, factors influencing treatment decisions, and strategies for monitoring and managing this disease.

Key Takeaways

  • Common metastatic sites for colon cancer include the liver, lungs, abdominal cavity and bones.

  • Treatment options vary depending on site of metastasis and may involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or targeted therapies/immunotherapy.

  • Factors such as size & location of tumors & genetic mutations can influence treatment decisions. Regular monitoring is essential to manage outcomes.

Common Metastatic Sites in Colon Cancer

Illustration of cancer cells metastasizing to different parts of the body

Colon cancer often metastasizes once the cancer has spread to the following areas:

  • Liver

  • Lungs

  • Abdominal cavity

  • Bones

This is due to the direct link between the blood supply of the colon and the liver via a large blood vessel, which aids the dispersal of cancer cells to the liver. Detecting cancer at an early stage in metastatic colon cancer helps physicians identify patients at risk of metastasis and treat them effectively with chemotherapy or targeted therapies.

This part will focus on an in-depth examination of these frequent metastatic sites, including lymph nodes, touching upon the specific difficulties and therapeutic alternatives for each site.

Liver Metastases

Illustration of liver metastases in colon cancer

Metastatic colorectal tumors in the liver are characterized by slow growth and are often confined to the organ. Treatment options for liver metastases in colon cancer patients include surgery, ablation therapy, and systemic therapies such as chemotherapy drugs. Obtaining a second opinion is of paramount importance for patients deemed to have unresectable liver metastases, as novel treatments recommended by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network can convert tumors from unresectable to resectable.

Ablation therapy is one such treatment, involving the insertion of a small probe into the tumor, emitting microwaves or radio waves to generate heat and destroy cancer cells, potentially shrinking tumors. Another innovative treatment option is radioembolization, which involves placing small radioactive spheres or beads into the artery supplying blood to the liver tumor, effectively treating metastatic disease like colon cancer metastasis.

Lung Metastases

Illustration of lung metastases in colon cancer

Lung metastases in colon cancer patients can be treated with:

  • Surgical removal: This involves resecting the metastatic tumors from the lungs, potentially improving survival rates in suitable patients.

  • Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT): This is a non-invasive treatment that delivers high doses of radiation to the tumor while minimizing damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

  • Collaboration between colorectal and thoracic surgeons: Working together, these specialists can develop a comprehensive treatment plan for patients with lung metastases.

SBRT is a treatment technique that delivers a high dose of radiation to a precise target while minimizing radiation exposure to adjacent healthy tissues. In the context of lung metastases from colon cancer, SBRT can be utilized to treat metastatic tumors in the lungs. Research has demonstrated its safety and effectiveness in providing local control and extended survival for patients with lung metastases from colorectal cancer.

Collaboration between colorectal and thoracic surgeons through staged resections ensures comprehensive treatment for patients with lung metastases from colon cancer.

Abdominal Cavity and Peritoneum

Metastases in the abdominal cavity and peritoneum occur in approximately 8% to 15% of patients with colon cancer. Systemic chemotherapy, surgery and other methods are treatment options for metastases. These can help to manage the issue. One such surgical option is cytoreductive surgery (CRS) in conjunction with hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), which can effectively treat metastases in the abdominal cavity and peritoneum caused by colon cancer.

The combination of CRS and HIPEC can result in a significant improvement in survival rates for selected patients with peritoneal metastases from colon cancer. This surgical approach has the potential to:

  • Extend survival

  • Improve the quality of life for patients

  • Be a valuable treatment option for those with metastases in the abdominal cavity and peritoneum.

Bone Metastases

Illustration of bone metastases in colon cancer

Bone metastases occur when cancer cells migrate from the primary tumor in the colon to other areas of the body, including the bones. The prevalence of bone metastases in colon cancer patients ranges from 1.2% to 12%, with a ten-year incidence of 2.7%. Diagnosis of bone metastases typically involves imaging studies such as computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and bone scans.

Radiation and targeted treatments may serve as therapeutic alternatives for bone metastases in patients with colon cancer. Despite bone metastases being less prevalent than other metastatic locations, awareness of possible treatment choices ensures optimal outcomes for patients with this form of metastatic colon cancer.

Treatment Approaches for Metastatic Colon Cancer

A range of treatment strategies to treat colon cancer, especially for metastatic colon cancer, encompasses:

  • Surgery

  • Chemotherapy

  • Radiation therapy

  • Targeted therapies

  • Immunotherapy

Treatment selection is dependent on numerous factors like cancer size and location, genetic mutations, and the patient’s overall health status. Sometimes, a combined approach may yield the most favorable outcome.

For example, surgery may be necessary for stage IV colon cancer if the cancer is obstructing the colon or is likely to do so. Chemotherapy serves as a key component of metastatic colon cancer treatment and can be administered at different stages, such as neoadjuvant therapy before surgery to shrink tumors or adjuvant therapy after surgery to eliminate residual cancer cells.

Radiation therapy, such as SBRT, can be used to treat metastatic sites like the lungs and bones. Targeted therapies and immunotherapy can also be effective in treating metastatic colon cancer, depending on genetic factors and the patient’s immune system.


One procedure can accomplish the surgical extraction of tumors in the colon and metastatic locations, while chemotherapy and radiation are employed pre-surgery to reduce tumor size. Various surgical procedures are utilized to treat metastatic colon cancer, including:

  • Colectomy

  • Hemicolectomy

  • Partial colectomy

  • Segmental resection

  • Surgical resection

In some cases, tumors can be removed from both the colon and liver during the same surgical procedure. Surgical resection of metastatic colon cancer can be potentially curative in some patients but is not always possible.

In cases where surgery is not feasible, radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy may be recommended. Additionally, other procedures such as embolization, which involves injecting tiny particles to impede or abate blood flow to cancer cells, can be employed when surgery is not an option.


Chemotherapy is a fundamental component of metastatic colon cancer treatment, functioning by eliminating rapidly-dividing cancer cells in the body, including metastatic colon cancer cells. It is a systemic treatment that targets cancer cells throughout the body but can also affect healthy cells that divide quickly, resulting in side effects. Potential side effects of chemotherapy for metastatic colon cancer may include:

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Loss of appetite

  • Hair loss

  • Mouth sores and soreness

  • Neuropathy

  • Diarrhea

  • Changes in taste

  • Weight loss

  • Fatigue

  • Sensitivity to certain foods

Chemotherapy can be administered during various stages of metastatic colon cancer development, such as:

  • Neoadjuvant therapy before surgery to reduce tumors or impede their growth

  • Adjuvant therapy after surgery to assist in eliminating any residual cancer cells

  • Primary treatment for peritoneal metastases

  • Treatment to improve symptoms and extend life in metastatic colorectal cancer patients.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy, such as SBRT, can be used to treat metastatic sites like the lungs and bones. SBRT is a highly conformal radiation technique that delivers a high radiation dose to small, well-defined tumor targets while limiting the dose received by surrounding normal tissue. In the context of lung and bone metastases from colon cancer, SBRT can be utilized to treat metastatic tumors in these locations, with studies indicating favorable outcomes and improved prognosis for patients.

The dosage of SBRT for treating metastatic sites such as the lungs and bones is determined based on various factors, including the size, location, and overall health of the tumor. The objective is to deliver a high dose of radiation to the tumor while minimizing harm to the surrounding healthy tissues. The exact dosage is ultimately decided by the radiation oncologist, taking into account the patient’s individual characteristics and treatment objectives.

Targeted Therapies and Immunotherapy

Targeted therapies and immunotherapy can be effective in treating metastatic colon cancer, depending on genetic factors and the patient’s immune system. Targeted therapies are treatments that specifically target genes and proteins within cancer cells, while immunotherapy utilizes the body’s own immune system to combat cancer cells.

Checkpoint inhibitors are a type of immunotherapy that enable the immune system’s T cells to attack the cancer. These inhibitors work by blocking cancer cells from transmitting signals that indicate their innocuousness, thus enabling T cells to detect and target a tumor.

Targeted therapies and immunotherapy can offer new treatment avenues for metastatic colon cancer patients, with the potential to improve outcomes and quality of life.

Clinical Trials for Metastatic Colon Cancer

Clinical trials, research studies assessing new treatments for metastatic colon cancer, offer patients access to cutting-edge therapies. Some of the most recent clinical trials for metastatic colon cancer include:

  • Immunotherapy with two novel drugs

  • Fruquintinib as a targeted therapy

  • A Phase 3 trial for patients with a rare genetic tumor mutation known as KRAS G12C

Involvement in clinical trials for metastatic colon cancer may encompass potential risks such as side effects or complications from the trial treatment. However, there are also potential benefits, such as the opportunity to receive a new treatment that may improve outcomes and contribute to advancements in cancer research. To locate pertinent clinical trials for treating metastatic colon cancer, patients can visit websites such as the National Cancer Institute or the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, or utilize the clinical trial finder tool provided by UCSF.

Patients may be eligible for clinical trials for metastatic colon cancer, irrespective of the number or type of prior therapies. The requirements may include having histologically or cytologically confirmed metastatic colorectal cancer. Discussing clinical trial options with the healthcare team can help patients make informed decisions about their treatment and potentially access cutting-edge therapies.

Factors Influencing Treatment Decisions

Treatment decisions can be significantly swayed by the size and location of metastatic colon cancer, as well as the existence of particular genetic mutations. In most cases, surgery is not feasible, and chemotherapy is suggested to reduce symptoms and extend survival. However, if the metastases are resectable, surgical resection of the primary tumor and chemotherapy may offer a considerable survival advantage.

Certain combinations of genetic mutations have been found to be more prevalent in patients with metastatic cancer than in those with nonmetastatic disease. If these findings are confirmed in subsequent studies, this information could be utilized to direct treatment decisions, potentially improving outcomes for metastatic colon cancer patients.

Mutations commonly observed in metastatic colon cancer include:

  • MSH6

  • RNF43

  • ATM

  • TGFBR2

  • BRAF

  • PTEN

  • APC

  • KRAS

  • TP53

  • FBXW7

  • PIK3CA

These mutations can influence treatment decisions.

Monitoring and Managing Metastatic Colon Cancer

Regular check-ups, imaging tests, and necessary adjustments to treatment plans form part of the monitoring and management process for metastatic colon cancer, aiming for the most favorable outcomes. Common tests and procedures for monitoring metastatic colon cancer include:

  • Taking a medical history and conducting a physical examination

  • Tests to look for blood in the stool

  • Blood tests

  • Diagnostic colonoscopy

  • Proctoscopy

  • Biopsy

  • Imaging tests

Patients with metastatic colon cancer should receive regular check-ups, including surveillance colonoscopy, at intervals of 1 to 3 years, depending on their risk factors and the findings of prior tests.

Imaging tests such as CT scanning, including multidetector computed tomography (MDCT) and CT colonography, are generally employed for monitoring metastatic colon cancer. Patients with metastatic colon cancer should maintain alertness and regular dialogue with their healthcare team to make timely modifications to treatment plans, ensuring the disease is managed in the best possible way.


In conclusion, understanding the complex nature of metastatic colon cancer and its common metastatic sites is crucial for creating personalized treatment plans that optimize outcomes. A combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapies, and immunotherapy may be employed, with factors such as the extent and location of the cancer, genetic mutations, and the patient’s overall health influencing treatment decisions. Participating in clinical trials may provide access to innovative treatments, while regular monitoring and management of the disease ensures the best possible outcomes for patients with metastatic colon cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where does colon cancer usually metastasize to?

Colon cancer commonly metastasizes to the liver, as well as to other organs such as the lungs, brain, peritoneum and distant lymph nodes. Treatment options are available, but surgery may not be enough to cure it in most cases.

What is the life expectancy of colon cancer that has metastasized?

Patients with metastatic colon cancer have an average 5-year relative survival rate of 72% for regional cancer, and 13% for distant cancer. Approximately 70-75% survive beyond one year, 30-35% beyond three years, and fewer than 20% beyond five years from diagnosis.

What is the most common route of spread of colon cancer?

The most common route of spread for colon cancer is through the blood or lymphatic system, which can lead to other parts of the body, such as the liver, lungs, brain, and distant lymph nodes.

What are the three most common sites of metastatic disease in cancer?

Lymph nodes, bones, brain, liver, and lungs are the most common sites of metastasis in cancer patients. Certain types of cancer are more likely to spread to certain organs. Malignant pleural effusion and malignant ascites are other forms of distant metastases.

What are the main treatment options for metastatic colon cancer?

The main treatment options for metastatic colon cancer are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapies, and immunotherapy.

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