Treatment for liver cancer

Standard treatments

The treatments for cancer of the liver include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Biological therapy
  • Radiotherapy

Your treatment will depend on the stage, grade and the type of cancer cells you have. The stage looks at the size of your cancer and if it has spread from where it started. The grade of the cancer can tell if your cancer grows quickly or slowly. You can have a low, moderate or high grade cancer. Your doctor will also consider your age and general health.

Surgery

There are three main types of liver surgery:

  • A resection: the part of your liver that contains the cancer is removed
  • A lobectomy: a lobe of your liver is removed
  • A liver transplant: your liver is replaced with another healthy liver

Your surgeon will decide which is the best option for you. If you would like more information on liver surgery, call the National Cancer Helpline 1800 200 700 and speak to a specialist nurse.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to cure or control cancer. Chemotherapy drugs can be given on their own or with each other. Many cancer patients receive a combination of two or three chemotherapy drugs. Chemotherapy can also be given before or after radiotherapy and surgery. The drugs are either injected into the bloodstream or given in tablet form. Some drugs commonly used are:

Chemoembolisation: This treatment is like a hepatic angiogram. It involves injecting chemotherapy directly into the liver through a tube placed in the liver blood vessels. The blood flow is blocked so that the chemotherapy can stay longer in the liver and kill the cancer cells. It is normal to stay in hospital for a day or two afterwards. The treatment can be repeated again, if needed. See the booklet called Understanding Chemotherapy, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information.

Learn more about chemotherapy

Biological therapies

This therapy uses the body´s immune system to treat cancer. It is not commonly used in the treatment of liver cancer. Sorafenib (Nexavar) is one drug that is currently being used.

Learn more about biological therapy

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is the use of high-energy rays to kill or shrink the cancer cells. These are aimed directly at the tumour. Radiotherapy is not commonly used in the treatment of liver cancer. See our booklet Understanding Radiotherapy, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information.

Learn more about radiotherapy

Newer treatments

The following treatments are being used for liver cancer in some hospitals in Ireland and the UK. Your doctor will let you know if they are suitable for you and also available to you.

  • Radiofrequency ablation: Your doctor puts a needle into the tumour with the help of a CT scan. Radiowaves then pass through the needle to heat and destroy the tumour.
  • Cryotherapy/cryosurgery: Cryotherapy is the use of a special device called a probe to freeze and destroy the liver tumour. The probe delivers liquid nitrogen to the tumour to freeze it. Cryotherapy can only be used on small amounts of tumour. It is also known as cryosurgery.

Advanced treatment

Advanced cancer means that the cancer has spread from the area where it started. If it spreads in the area around the liver, it is called local spread. It can also spread to other areas of the body. This is called secondary cancer or metastatic cancer.

Sadly, it is usually not possible to cure advanced cancer. Treatment can be given to control the cancer and to improve your quality of life. Treatments can involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and biological therapy.

You may also be seen by the palliative care team at this time. This team are there to help with your symptoms and to support you and your family through your treatment.

Learn more about treatments

Side effects

The type of side-effects you get will depend on the type of treatment, the dose, the duration and your own general health. Some treatments may cause pain, lowered resistance to infection, nausea, vomiting, fever, loss of appetite or hair loss. Many treatments cause fatigue. These will gradually improve once treatment is over. Your doctor will discuss any likely side-effects beforehand.

For more about coping with side-effects, see the booklets Understanding ChemotherapyUnderstanding RadiotherapyCoping with FatigueDiet and Cancer and Understanding Cancer and Complementary Therapies, all available to download under the "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page.

Learn more about side effects

Clinical trials

If a treatment looks like it might be helpful, it is given to patients in research studies called clinical trials. Trials may be taking place at the hospital you are attending. If you are interested in taking part, talk to your doctor. He or she can tell you if the trial would suit you or not.

Learn more about clinical trials

Call our National Cancer Helpline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 7pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm