The treatment options for liver cancer include surgery, ablation (this procedure uses high-frequency electric current to heat and destroy the cancer cells), embolization (this procedure involves the injection of substances to try to block or reduce the blood flow to cancer cells in the liver), targeted therapy, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.
Surgery is an option for people with an early stage of liver cancer. The surgeon may remove the whole liver (transplant) or only the part that has cancer (hepatectomy). If the whole liver is removed, it's replaced with healthy liver tissue from a donor.
Removal of part of the liver:
As much as 80% of the liver may be removed. The surgeon leaves behind normal liver tissue. The remaining healthy tissue takes over the work of the liver. Also, the liver can regrow the missing part. The new cells grow over several weeks.
- A liver transplant is an option if the tumors are small, the disease has not spread outside the liver, and suitable donated liver tissue can be found. Donated liver tissue comes from a deceased person or a live donor. If the donor is living, the tissue is part of a liver, rather than a whole liver.
- When healthy liver tissue from a donor is available, the transplant surgeon removes your entire liver (total hepatectomy) and replaces it with the donated tissue.
Methods of ablation destroy the cancer in the liver. They may be used for people waiting for a liver transplant. Or they may be used for people who can't have surgery or a liver transplant. Surgery to remove the tumor may not be possible because of cirrhosis or other conditions that cause poor liver function, the location of the tumor within the liver, or other health problems.
Methods of ablation include the following:
- Radiofrequency ablation: The doctor uses a special probe that contains tiny electrodes to kill the cancer cells with heat.
- Percutaneous ethanol injection: The doctor uses ultrasound to guide a thin needle into the liver tumor. Alcohol (ethanol) is injected directly into the tumor and kills cancer cells. The procedure may be performed once or twice a week. Usually local anesthesia is used, but if you have many tumors in the liver, general anesthesia may be needed.
For those who can't have surgery or a liver transplant, embolization or chemoembolization may be an option. The doctor inserts a tiny catheter into an artery in your leg and moves the catheter into the hepatic artery.
For embolization, the doctor injects tiny sponges or other particles into the catheter. The particles block the flow of blood through the artery. Depending on the type of particles used, the blockage may be temporary or permanent.
Without blood flow from the hepatic artery, the tumor dies. Although the hepatic artery is blocked, healthy liver tissue continues to receive blood from the hepatic portal vein.
For chemoembolization, the doctor injects an anticancer drug (chemotherapy) into the artery before injecting the tiny particles that block blood flow. Without blood flow, the drug stays in the liver longer.
People with liver cancer who can't have surgery or a liver transplant may receive a drug called targeted therapy. Sorafenib (Nexavar) tablets were the first targeted therapy approved for liver cancer.
Targeted therapy slows the growth of liver tumors. It also reduces their blood supply. The drug is taken by mouth.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It may be an option for a few people who can't have surgery. Sometimes it's used with other approaches. Radiation therapy also may be used to help relieve pain from liver cancer that has spread to the bones.
Doctors use two types of radiation therapy to treat liver cancer:
- External radiation therapy: The radiation comes from a large machine, which aims beams of radiation at the chest and abdomen.
- Internal radiation therapy: The radiation comes from tiny radioactive spheres. A doctor uses a catheter to inject the tiny spheres into your hepatic artery. The spheres destroy the blood supply to the liver tumor.
Chemotherapy, the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, is sometimes used to treat liver cancer. Drugs are usually given by vein (intravenous). The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel throughout your body.