Cancer Home > What Is Irinotecan Used For?

If you have colon or rectal cancer that has spread to other areas of the body, your healthcare provider may prescribe irinotecan to help slow down the progression of the cancer. This medicine works by affecting the DNA multiplication process, which causes the cells to die. Irinotecan may also be prescribed for unapproved ("off-label") uses, such as treating cancer of the esophagus or pancreas.

An Overview of Uses for Irinotecan

Irinotecan (Camptosar®) is a prescription chemotherapy medication. It is approved for the treatment of colon or rectal cancer that has spread to other areas of the body (metastasized). It is used alone or in combination with other chemotherapy medicines.
Colon cancer occurs when cancer cells form in the large intestines, also known as the colon. Rectal cancer is cancer that affects the rectum, or the end of the colon.
Once cancer is diagnosed, a physician will determine the stage of the cancer, based on how far the cancer has progressed. Cancer staging is important, as it can help in making treatment decisions. Both colon and rectal cancer are generally divided into the following stages:
  • Stage 0
  • Stage I
  • Stage II
  • Stage III
  • Stage IV
  • Recurrent cancer.
The higher the stage, the more the cancer has progressed. Stage IV cancer is cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. This is also known as metastatic cancer. For example, rectal cancer that has spread to lung tissue is called metastatic rectal cancer. Some people also use the term "advanced cancer" to describe metastatic cancer.
Recurrent cancer is cancer that was treated, could not be detected for a period of time, and then returned, either to the original site or another part of the body.
(Click Rectal Cancer Stages or Colon Cancer Stages for more information about the various stages of these cancers.)
There are a variety of treatment options available for colon and rectal cancer. Treatment decisions are based on the stage of the cancer, a person's health, and individual treatment preferences, among other factors. Stage IV cancer is usually not curable. Instead, treatment at this stage is normally aimed at controlling the cancer and relieving symptoms.
The general treatment options for stage IV and recurrent colon or rectal cancer include:
  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy.
(Click Colon Cancer Treatment by Stage or Rectal Cancer Treatment by Stage if you would like to learn more.)
Irinotecan is approved to treat metastatic colon or rectal cancer. It is used as a first treatment, in combination with leucovorin and 5-fluorouracil (Adrucil®, Carac®, Efudex®, Fluoroplex®, also known as 5-FU). It can also be used alone for metastatic colon or rectal cancer that progressed or is recurrent after treatment with fluorouracil.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Kristi Monson, PharmD;
Last updated/reviewed:
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