Treating Rectal Cancer in the COVID-19 Era: Expert Guidance

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

April 09, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, minimizing risks of infection to patients with cancer while maintaining good outcomes remains a priority. An international panel of experts has now issued recommendations for treating patients with rectal cancer, which includes using a short pre-operative course of radiotherapy (SCRT) and then delaying surgery.

Using SCRT translates to fewer hospital appointments, which will keep patients safer and allow them to maintain social distancing. The panel also found that surgery can be safely delayed by up to 12 weeks, and thus will allow procedures to be rescheduled after the pandemic peaks.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is a global emergency and we needed to work very quickly to identify changes that would benefit patients," said David Sebag-Montefiore, MD, a professor of clinical oncology at the University of Leeds and honorary clinical oncologist with the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, who led the 15 member panel. "Our recommendations were published 20 days after our first meeting."

"This process normally takes many months, if not years," he said in a statement.

The recommendations were published online April 2 in Radiotherapy and Oncology.

The panel used the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) rectal cancer guidelines as a framework to describe these new recommendations.

Recommendations by Stage

The recommendations were categorized into four subgroups based on cancer stage.

Early stage

  • The ESMO guidelines recommend total mesorectal excision (TME) surgery without pre-operative radiotherapy for most cases.

  • Panel recommendation also strongly supports the use of TME without pre-operative radiotherapy.

Intermediate stage

  • The ESMO guidelines recommend TME alone or combined with SCRT or conventional radiotherapy (CRT) if there is uncertainty that a good quality mesorectal excision can be achieved.

  • The panel strongly recommends TME alone in regions where high quality surgery is performed. The use of radiotherapy in this subgroup requires careful discussion, as the benefits of preoperative radiotherapy are likely to be small. If radiotherapy is used, then the preferred option should be SCRT.

Locally advanced

  • The ESMO guideline recommends either pre-operative SCRT or CRT.

  • The panel strongly recommends the use of SCRT and notes two phase 3 trials have compared SCRT and CRT and showed comparable outcomes for local recurrence, disease-free survival, overall survival, and late toxicity. In the COVID-19 setting, the panel points out that SCRT has many advantages over CRT, namely that there is less acute toxicity, fewer treatments which translate to less travel and contact with other patients and staff, and a significantly reduced risk of COVID-19 infection during treatment.

Timing of surgery after SCRT

  • The ESMO guideline does not have any recommendations as they were issued before the Stockholm III trial (Lancet Oncol. 2017;18:336-346).

  • The panel notes that the use of SCRT and delaying surgery has advantages that can be beneficial in both routine clinical practice and the COVID-19 setting. Several clinical trials have recommended that surgery should be performed within 3-7 days of completing radiotherapy, but the Stockholm III trial reported no difference in outcomes when surgery was delayed. It compared surgery performed within 1 week versus 4-8 weeks following SCRT and there was no difference in any survival endpoints. In addition, a longer delay to surgery was associated with a reduction in post-operative and surgical morbidity although no differences in severe complications or re-operations.

Advanced subgroup

  • The ESMO guidelines recommend the use of pre-operative CRT or SCRT followed by neoadjuvant chemotherapy. CRT should be given as a fluoropyrimidine (usually capecitabine) combined with radiotherapy of 45-50.4 Gy over 5-5.5 weeks. Adjuvant chemotherapy should be considered but there is wide international variation in its use.

  • The panel recommends that two options be considered based on the current evidence. The first is pre-op CRT, which is the most established standard of care, with the duration of concurrent capecitabine chemotherapy limited to 5-5.5 weeks. The second option is SCRT with or without neoadjuvant chemotherapy. In this case, the duration of radiotherapy is substantially less and has advantages versus CRT. "We consider both options to be acceptable but note the advantages of using SCRT in the COVID-19 setting," the authors write. "The decision to use neoadjuvant chemotherapy in option 2 will reflect the attitudes to neoadjuvant and adjuvant chemotherapy in each country, the assessment of the risk-benefit ratio, considering the risk factors for COVID-19 increased mortality, and the capacity and prioritization of chemotherapy delivery."

Organ Preservation

Organ preservation is being increasingly considered when a complete clinical response is achieved after CRT or SCRT, the panel points out. "An organ preservation approach may be considered during the COVID-19 period providing that resources for an adequate surveillance including imaging and endoscopy are available to detect local failures that require salvage surgery," they write.

Radiother Oncol. Published online April 2, 2020. Full text

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