Chemoradiotherapy for rectal cancer
Treatment with chemotherapy and radiotherapy together is called chemoradiotherapy. You might have this treatment for cancer of the back passage (rectal cancer).
Radiotherapy uses radiation, usually x-rays, to destroy cancer cells. It is targeted at the pelvis only and treats the cancer and nearby tissues.
Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. The drugs circulate throughout the body in the bloodstream. Chemotherapy makes the body more sensitive to the effects of radiotherapy.
Giving these treatments together before surgery can reduce the size of the rectal cancer and lower the chance of your cancer coming back.
When do you have chemoradiotherapy?
You usually have chemoradiotherapy before surgery. Doctors also call this long course chemoradiotherapy. Long course means the treatment is given daily over 5 to 5 ½ weeks.
You might have chemoradiotherapy before surgery if:
- your rectal cancer has spread to nearby structures and tissues
- it might be difficult for your surgeon to remove the rectal cancer with a clear border of tissue (margin)
Before your treatment
You have blood tests before and during your treatment. They check how well your liver and kidneys are working and that it is safe to give the treatment.
Between 2 and 8 out of 100 people (2 to 8%) have low levels of an enzyme called dihydropyrimidine dehydrogenase (DPD) in their bodies. A lack of DPD can mean you’re more likely to have severe side effects from the chemotherapy drugs capecitabine or 5-fluorouracil (5FU). These side effects can rarely be life threatening.
Before starting chemoradiotherapy treatment you have a blood test to check levels of DPD. If the test confirms you have this enzyme deficiency, the chemotherapy amount (dose) will be reduced or removed from your treatment. Your doctor or nurse will talk to you about this.
Pregnancy, contraception and fertility
Tell the team looking after you if you think you might be pregnant before treatment starts. Both men and women should use contraception during chemoradiotherapy. This is because these treatments can damage sperm and eggs or harm a developing baby.
Chemoradiotherapy to the pelvis can cause infertility. If infertility is an issue for you or your partner, talk to the team looking after you. They can refer you to a fertility specialist before starting treatment.
We have more information about radiotherapy and fertility.
We also have information about chemotherapy and fertility and ways to preserve fertility.
How do you have chemoradiotherapy?
You have treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department as an outpatient.
Before you begin treatment, the radiotherapy team will decide how much radiation you need. They divide it into a number of smaller treatments. They call each treatment a fraction.
Before starting your treatment, you will attend a planning appointment. You will have a CT scan and the radiographers will make pen marks or small tattoos on your skin. These marks or tattoos are used during your treatment to ensure the radiotherapy is accurately targeted at the cancer.
Your treatment starts a few days or up to 3 weeks after the planning session. You have radiotherapy from an external machine called a linear accelerator.
It is a daily treatment, five days a week for around 5 weeks.
Daniel (senior radiographer): “Before your treatment starts your doctor will need to work out exactly where the treatment needs to go, and also which parts need to be avoided by the treatment.
To have radiotherapy, you lie in the same position as you did for your planning scans.
We then line up the machine based on your tattoo marks.
It's really important that you stay very very still when you're having your treatment. It’s also important to let the radiographers know right at the beginning if you're not comfortable, so they can adjust your position”.
(Radiographer): “Ok, all done we'll be back in a couple of minutes”.
(Daniel): “We leave the room and control the machine from a separate room. This is so we aren't exposed to radiation.
Treatment takes a few minutes and you'll be able to talk to us using an intercom.
We can see and hear you while you're having your treatment and will check that you're OK.
When your treatment starts you won't feel anything. You may hear the machine as it moves around you, giving the treatment from different angles.
Because we're aiming to give the same treatment to the same part of the body every day then the treatment process is exactly the same everyday. So you shouldn't really notice any difference.
You'll see someone from the team caring for you once a week while you're having treatment.
They'll ask how you are and ask about any side effects”.
Jeff (patient): “They get you from one sitting area to another. And then take you into the room where you undress to the waist and then lie down. And line you up by either moving you or asking you to shuffle a little.
And they check the dimensions and they talk to one another, and they say I'm fine this side, how are you?
Yes fine, ok, stay where you are Jeff, and that was it.
A few little clicks and lights go on and off, and you can see a green laser beam which lines up with certain things on your body….so no, no real noise and no discomfort”.
The most common chemotherapy is a tablet called capecitabine (Xeloda). Another treatment is the chemotherapy drug 5 fluorouracil (5FU) given into a vein (intravenously). But this is less common.
Capecitabine (Xeloda) is a tablet taken twice a day. You start taking capecitabine on the 1st day of your radiotherapy and stop taking it on the last day of radiotherapy.
You must take tablets according to the instructions your doctor or pharmacist gives you. Whether you have a full or empty stomach can affect how much of a drug gets into your bloodstream.
You should take the right dose, not more or less. Never stop taking a cancer drug without talking to your specialist first.
You can read more about the different chemotherapy drugs and how they are given on our A to Z cancer drugs list.
Side effects of the radiotherapy
Everyone is different and the side effects vary from person to person. This treatment may cause more severe side effects than having radiotherapy or chemotherapy on its own.
The team looking after you will check your wellbeing. They can make adjustments to your treatment or medication if needed.
Radiotherapy side effects can be early or late side effects. Early side effects happen in the few weeks following treatment. Late side effects happen many months or years after treatment has finished.
Your specialist team will discuss these with you before starting treatment.
Early side effects
The early side effects gradually develop and can get worse during the treatment. They may continue to get worse after your treatment ends but most of the effects begin to improve after 1 or 2 weeks.
Some common side effects of chemoradiotherapy for rectal cancer include:
- inflammation of your bowel causing diarrhoea
- inflammation of your bladder causing stinging and burning (cystitis) when you pass urine
- tiredness and weakness
- feeling or being sick
- itchy, dry, red or sore skin around the back passage (anus)
Late side effects
These may happen many weeks, months or years after treatment finishes. Not everyone will have these side effects.
There are things you can do to deal with any late side effects that you have. Speak to your specialist if they are a problem for you.
- bowel changes such as needing to go for a poo more often or more urgently
- bladder changes such as needing to pee more often
- bone pain in your pelvis
- fertility problems and changes to your sex life
- a small risk of a second cancer developing in the pelvis many years later. Speak to your specialist if you are worried
Side effects of the chemotherapy
These side effects can occur during the period you are receiving chemotherapy. They usually get better within a few days of completing the treatment.
- an increased risk of infection
- bleeding and bruising easily
- a drop in the number of red blood cells making you pale and breathless (anaemia)
- feeling very tired and weak
- feeling or being sick
- chest pain or a stroke - this is rare but go straight to A and E if you have these symptoms
- a sore mouth or mouth ulcers
- sore, red, peeling skin on the palms of your hands or soles of feet