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Medically reviewed by Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. 5/2020

Recurrent rectal cancer is cancer that has returned or progressed following initial treatment with surgery, radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy. Patients experiencing progression of rectal cancer have been perceived to have few treatment options. However, certain patients can still be cured of their cancer and others derive meaningful palliative benefit from additional treatment.

Colorectal Colon Rectal CancerConnect 490

Treatment of Pelvic Recurrence of Rectal Cancer

Patients treated for rectal cancer may experience a recurrence of cancer near the original site of the cancer. Clinical studies have reported that certain patients with localized recurrence of cancer in the pelvis can undergo surgical removal of disease and be cured in approximately 10 to 20% of circumstances. Depending on the extent of recurrent disease, surgery may involve local excision with or without bowel resection, abdominoperineal resection, or pelvic exenteration (removal of most structures in the pelvis). Patients may also be treated with systemic therapy and radiation therapy.

Treatment of Metastatic Rectal Cancer

Recurrent rectal cancer may also involve distant sites in the body such as the liver or lung. When the site of metastasis is a single organ, such as the liver, and the cancer is confined to a single defined area within the organ, patients may benefit from local treatment—such as surgery—directed at that single site of recurrence or metastasis. This local treatment may be accompanied by systemic (whole-body) treatment such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy or precision cancer medicines. When cancer is more extensive and surgery is not possible, systemic therapy is the primary approach to treatment.

Treatment of the liver: The most common site of metastasis for patients with rectal cancer is the liver. When it’s possible to completely surgically remove all liver metastases, surgery is the preferred treatment. Some patients may have both the liver and the rectum treated in a single operation, and others may have two operations: one to treat the rectum and one to treat the liver. Chemotherapy or chemotherapy plus radiation therapy may be used before and/or after surgery.

Although surgery offers some patients the chance for a cure, a majority of patients with liver metastases are not candidates for surgery because of the size or location of their tumors or their general health. Some of these patients may become candidates for surgery if initial treatment with systemic shrinks the tumors sufficiently. If the tumors continue to be impossible to remove surgically, other liver-directed therapies may be considered. These other therapies include radiofrequency ablation (use of heat to kill cancer cells), cryotherapy (use of cold to kill cancer cells), delivery of chemotherapy directly to the liver, and radiation therapy. Relatively little information is available from clinical trials about the risks and benefits of these other approaches, but they may benefit selected patients.

Systemic Treatment

Systemic treatment may include chemotherapy, immunotherapy or precision cancer medicines used alone or in combination. Several different treatments are available, and the choice of which to use will depend on factors such as your health, previous treatment history, and the presence of defined cancer driving mutations that can be targeted with precision cancer medicines. In some cases, systemic therapy can shrink the cancer enough that initially inoperable cancers becomes possible to surgically remove.

Genetic Mutations: Not all rectal cancer cells are alike. They may differ from one another based on what genes have mutations. If not already obtained, molecular testing should be performed to test for genetic mutations or the proteins they produce on ALL patients. By testing an individual’s cancer for specific unique genomic- biomarkers doctors can offer a personalized treatment approach utilizing precision medicines. Rectal cancer mutations are being identified and new medicines developed to target these mutations on an ongoing basis.

Precision Cancer Medicines

Individuals with the following biomarkers may have their colon cancer treated differently using targeted precision cancer medicines. Individuals without treatable biomarkers can receive chemotherapy or consider participation in a clinical trial.

Epidermal growth factor receptors(EGFR) occurs in rectal cancers and can be targeted with Erbitux® (cetuximab) andVectibix (panitumumab) which are precision cancer medicine called monoclonal antibodies that work by binding to EGFR and when combined with chemotherapy can improve outcomes in patients that test positive for EGFR and do not have a RAS mutation.4,5,6

BRAFV600: Patients with mutant BRAF gene have historically had a poorer prognosis but their prognosis is significantly improved with the development of precision cancer medicines that target the V600E BRAF mutation. Treatment with a combination of precision medicines has been shown to double survival time for patients with recurrent cancer and doctors are now evaluating the use of these medications as initial therapy for BRAF positive cancers.3 BEACON Trial results…

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Microsatellite Instability High (MSI-H): MSI-H is a DNA abnormality found in some rectal cancers. It is most often found in tumors associated with genetic syndromes like Lynch syndrome but can also occur sporadically. MSI-High rectal cancer can be more effectively treated with the precision cancer immunotherapy drugs called "checkpoint inhibitors." Keytruda, and Opdivo have both been demonstrated to improve treatment of individuals with MSI-High disease.7,8

HER 2: Human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER 2) targeted therapies can dramatically improve outcomes and all colo-rectal cancers should be tested for HER 2 at the time of diagnosis. This is important because patients over expressing HER2 do not benefit from treatment with the commonly used EGFR inhibitors and these medications should be avoided. Patients can benefit from treatment with one of several different precision cancer medicine combinations that target HER2 like Herceptin (trastuzumab), Tykerb (lapatinib) and Tucatinib.9 - Learn more about HER2 directed therapy in colon cancer.

NTRK: neurotrophic tropomyosin receptor kinases (NTRKs genes, which encode for TRKs can become abnormally fused to other genes, resulting in growth signals that can lead to cancer and be targeted with specific medications. Cancer driving mutations and biomarkers that can be used to develop new precision cancer medicines are being continuously identified and incorporated into genomic testing panels and all patients should discuss the role of genomic biomarker testing with their doctor.

Treatment of Metastatic Rectal Cancer to a Single Site

Rectal cancer may spread (metastasize) to the liver, lung or other locations in the body. When the site of metastasis is a single organ, such as the liver or lungs, patients may benefit from local treatment directed at that single site of metastasis and are still potentially curable. Highly selected patients with isolated areas of rectal cancer can be cured if the primary cancer in the rectum and the isolated area of cancer outside the rectum can be surgically removed. Treatment begins with with systemic therapy as described above. If the cancer in the rectum responds to treatment and decreases in size potentially curative surgery can be considered at that time.

Strategies to Improve Treatment

While some progress has been made in the treatment of recurrent rectal cancer many patients still succumb to cancer and better treatment strategies are clearly needed. Future progress in the treatment of rectal cancer will result from continued participation in appropriate clinical trials. Currently, there are several areas of active exploration aimed at improving the treatment of rectal cancer.

Precision cancer medicine uses targeted drugs and immunotherapies engineered to directly attack colon cancer cells with specific abnormalities, leaving normal cells largely unharmed. Development of precision medicines are for the treatment of rectal cancer is ongoing and these novel medicines are first utilized patients with recurrent cancers and once proven effective they become available through clinical trials for treatment of earlier stage disease. All patients need to make sure their cancer undergoes genomic profiling. This can also be accomplished with a tissue sample and in blood using a "liquid biopsy" if tissue is not available.

New Approaches to Treating Liver Metastases: Researchers continue to explore news ways to treat cancer that has spread to the liver. One approach that is being evaluated is radioembolization This strategy uses radioactive microspheres (small spheres containing radioactive material). The small spheres are injected into vasculature of the liver, where they tend to get lodged in the vasculature responsible for providing blood and nourishment to the cancer cells. While lodged in place, the radioactive substance spontaneously emits radiation to the surrounding cancerous area while minimizing radiation exposure to the healthy portions of the liver.2 Researchers are also exploring alternatives to radiofrequency ablation for the destruction of liver tumors, as well as new approaches to delivering chemotherapy to the liver.

Colorectal Colon Rectal Newsletter 490

New Chemotherapy Regimens: Development of new multi-drug chemotherapy treatment regimens that incorporate new or additional anti-cancer therapies is an active area of clinical research.

Phase I Trials: New chemotherapy drugs continue to be developed and evaluated in patients with recurrent cancers in phase I clinical trials. The purpose of phase I trials is to evaluate new drugs in order to determine the best way of administering the drug and whether the drug has any anti-cancer activity in patients.


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  7. FDA approves first cancer treatment for any solid tumor with a specific genetic feature
  8. FDA grants nivolumab accelerated approval for MSI-H or dMMR colorectal cancer
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