Palliative Radiation Therapy for Colorectal Cancer

X-ray showing colon cancer
X-ray showing colon cancer. BSIP/UIG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Radiation therapy is frequently used to treat large, specific tumor sites, such as the rectum or pelvis, making it an excellent palliative treatment choice for colorectal cancer. Palliative cancer treatment can be used in two ways: To relieve uncomfortable symptoms in end stage disease or as a form of non-curative therapy used to prolong life. 

Palliation means relief of symptoms, and palliative treatments aim not to cure but to to provide better comfort.

Radiation therapy can potentially reduce the size of specific tumors alleviating painful or distressing symptoms in advanced disease. If you're no longer a candidate for chemotherapy or curative treatments -- or never elected to treat the colon cancer in the first place -- you might want to talk to your doctor to learn if palliative radiation therapy could help you. 

Symptom Management with Radiation Therapy

Many uncomfortable symptoms in advanced colorectal cancer can originate from a specific mass -- either primary (in your colon) or secondary, such as a metastatic site in the pelvis or liver. These tumors can trigger symptoms that may impact your quality of life as the disease progresses including intestinal bleeding that can precipitate anemia or even cause a bowel obstruction

Are You a Candidate for Palliative Radiation Therapy? 

Palliative radiation is most frequently considered in advanced colon and rectal cancers when the cancer has metastasized within the pelvis.

 Not everyone is a candidate for this treatment.

The radiation oncologist will review your most recent computed tomography (CT) scan results and determine if your symptoms could be eased with radiation. He or she might suggest scheduling a CT scan appointment if you have not recently had one. Next, you and the doctor will discuss the potential complications from radiation and discuss if the potential benefits to you would outweigh those complications.


What it Palliative Radiation Treatment Entails

For symptom relief, palliative treatment sessions usually occur on a daily basis and can range from as little as five to as many as 10 sessions or more. You must determine if you would be able to adhere to the daily regiment of treatment prescribed. The treatment itself is not painful, but you must be able to lie flat and still for at least 30 minutes or more. 

In end stage cancer, some people do not have the energy or the desire to go to the hospital for daily treatments. Likewise, if you are taking prescription medications, such as narcotics for pain relief, you might need someone to drive you to the therapy appointments.

Potential Side Effects

Although it is primarily used to relieve the symptoms caused by your growing tumors, palliative radiation therapy carries the risk of unwanted side effects including:

  • Injury to the small bowel, which is very susceptible to radiation therapy
  • Skin problems such as peeling or dry skin on the treated area
  • Fatigue
  • Problems with urination

This list is not exhaustive -- your radiation oncologist will be able to provide education on what side effects are most likely for you during treatment. The side effects are usually dependent on the amount, location and duration of your prescribed treatments. Additionally, not every person undergoing radiation therapy suffers side effects. 


Bae, S.H., Park, W., et al. (May 2011). Palliative Radiotherapy in Patients with a Symptomatic Pelvic Mass of Metastatic Colorectal Cancer. Radiation Oncology, 6:52. Accessed online April 22, 2014.

National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Palliative Care in Cancer. Accessed online April 24, 2014.

National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Radiation Therapy Side Effects. Accessed online April 24, 2014.

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