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Liver cancer treatment

A team of medical specialists, nurses and other health professionals is likely to coordinate your liver cancer treatment.

The type of treatment you are given will depend on the stage of your cancer and your overall health, medical history, age and personal preferences.

Often a combination of therapies is used. Treatment options include destroying or slowing the growth of cancer through heating or freezing (ablation) or surgical removal.

The growth of cancer can also be slowed or stopped with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Tumour ablation

Radiofrequency ablation is used mainly for small primary tumours. Your doctor uses a high frequency current. Thin needles are inserted into the tumour and heat is generated by the current. The heat destroys cancer cells.

Less commonly, your doctor might insert a special probe (cryotherapy) into the tumour and release liquid nitrogen to freeze it. Pure alcohol can also be injected to kill the cancer cells.

Radiation therapy

Your doctors may suggest selective internal radiation therapy (SIRT or radioembolisation) if surgery is not possible. Using a thin tube inserted into an artery, your doctor releases tiny radioactive beads (microspheres) into the liver. These beads block the blood supply to the tumour and deliver high-dose radiation.

Chemotherapy and TACE

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to stop, shrink or slow cancer growth. If your liver cancer has spread or you have secondary cancer, chemotherapy may be given through a vein to treat your whole body. This also affects healthy cells.

If you have primary cancer, you may be offered ‘transarterial chemoembolisation’ (TACE), a more targeted form of chemotherapy.

Your doctor inserts a tube into an artery supplying the liver to deliver a concentrated dose of anti-tumour drugs. A substance is also used to partly block the artery, starving the cancer cells of blood.

Surgery

Surgery is only suitable for a single tumour that has not grown into blood vessels. The type of surgery will depend on the size and location of your liver cancer. Surgery is mainly used to remove small primary tumours.

The liver can still work well even if up to 80% has been surgically removed. It has a remarkable ability to recover and can grow again after surgery.

If your whole liver needs to be removed, you may be offered a liver transplant. You will need to continue your cancer treatment as it can take months or years to get a suitable donor liver.

Palliative care

If you have advanced or late stage liver cancer, you may opt to have palliative care instead of trying to cure the disease. This can help reduce your symptoms, relieve pain and improve your quality of life.

Looking after yourself

If you have liver cancer, try to eat healthy food and stay active during treatment. Complementary therapies such as remedial massage may assist. Relaxation techniques can reduce anxiety and improve your mood.

Before agreeing to any treatments, discuss the benefits and risks. Be prepared to ask for a second opinion from another specialist or doctor.

Call the Cancer Council Helpline 13 11 20 for information and assistance.

Last reviewed: June 2017

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