Treatment for secondary liver cancer

Main treatments

Sadly, it is usually not possible to cure secondary liver cancer. But treatment can be given to control the cancer and to improve your quality of life. Treatments can involve chemotherapy, radiotherapy, biological therapy and surgery. Your doctor will plan your treatment and consider the stage of the cancer, your age and general health.

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.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to control the liver cancer. These drugs may shrink the tumour so it can be removed by surgery.

The type of drugs used will depend on where in the body the primary cancer started. These drugs can be given on their own or with each other. You are likely to receive a combination of two or three chemotherapy drugs. These drugs can be injected into the bloodstream or given in tablet form.

See our booklet 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

Chemoembolisation

In this treatment, a high dose of chemotherapy is injected directly into your liver through a tube placed in the blood vessels in your liver. Your doctor will first numb your groin area before putting in a thin tube called a catheter. This tube goes into a large artery and is threaded all the way to your liver. X-rays are taken during the treatment to guide your doctor. The chemotherapy drug is then injected and after that the blood flow is blocked so that the drug 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. It does not hurt but you may feel a little sore at the injection site. Your doctor will explain the treatment to you in more detail.

See our booklet Understanding Chemotherapy, which you can download from our "Important cancer information booklets" list on the right hand side of this page, for more information.

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 to treat advanced liver cancer. If you were first treated for breast cancer, you might be given the drug trastuzumab (Herceptin®). If you were first treated for bowel cancer, you might receive the drug bevacizumab (Avastin®) or cetuximab (Erbitux®). For more about drugs, see our section on biological drugs.

Learn more about biological therapy

Surgery

Surgery is not often used for secondary liver cancer. It may be possible for patients with a primary bowel cancer that has spread to the liver. In this case, part of the liver (liver resection) is removed if only a single or a few tumours are present. Liver transplants are usually not done as they have proved unsuccessful in the past.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses high–energy X–rays to kill cancer cells. It may be used along with chemotherapy and surgery to treat your cancer. It may also be used to control symptoms such as pain or bleeding.

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

Newer treatments for secondary liver cancer are being used in some hospitals in Ireland and the UK. Your doctor will let you know if they are suitable and available to you. They include radiofrequency ablation and cryotherapy.

Radiofrequency ablation: In this treatment your doctor puts a needle into the tumour with the help of a CT scan. Radio waves 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 secondary 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.

Learn more about the above 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 a lowered resistance to infection, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and loss of appetite or hair loss. Many treatments cause fatigue. Your doctor will discuss any likely side-effects before treatment. The drugs and dosage will be chosen carefully so that you experience as few side-effects as possible.

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

How can my symptoms be helped?

If you have secondary liver cancer, there are ways to help relieve symptoms like pain, swelling, jaundice, etc. The palliative care team might also become involved in managing your symptoms.

Swelling: The build-up of fluid in your tummy (abdomen) is called ascites. This extra fluid can be uncomfortable for you and lead to poor appetite and breathlessness. It can be relieved by taking water tablets (diuretics) or putting a tube into your tummy to drain away the fluid.

Pain: Pain can be managed with treatment and/or painkillers. Treatment can include chemotherapy, radiotherapy or steroids. Do let your doctor know the level of pain you are in. He or she will decide which painkillers are right for you. The palliative care team can also help to manage your pain.

Jaundice: Jaundice is caused by the cancer blocking the bile duct. This leads to a build-up of bile which turns your skin and the whites of your eyes yellow. It can be relieved by unblocking the bile duct with a tiny tube called a stent. Antihistamines can be prescribed to ease any itching. Do avoid perfumed soaps and creams as these can irritate your skin.

Other symptoms like loss of appetite, vomiting, tiredness, etc. can also be relieved. Speak to your doctor or nurse if you have these symptoms.

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

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