Chemoembolization is a minimally invasive treatment for liver cancer that can be used when there is too much tumor to treat with radiofrequency ablation (RFA), when the tumor is in a location that cannot be treated with RFA, or in combination with RFA or other treatments.

Chemoembolization delivers a high dose of cancer-killing drug (chemotherapy) directly to the organ while depriving the tumor of its blood supply by blocking, or embolizing, the arteries feeding the tumor. Using imaging for guidance, the interventional radiologist threads a tiny catheter up the femoral artery in the groin into the blood vessels supplying the lung tumor. The embolic agents keep the chemotherapy drug in the tumor by blocking the flow to other areas of the body. This allows for a higher dose of chemotherapy drug to be used, because less of the drug is able to circulate to the healthy cells in the body. Chemoembolization usually involves a hospital stay of two to four days. Patients typically have lower than normal energy levels for about a month afterwards.

Chemoembolization is a palliative, not a curative, treatment.

Chemoembolization has shown promising early results with some types of metastatic tumors. Although the individual materials used in this treatment are FDA approved, the treatment itself is not approved specifically for intra-arterial therapy of lung tumors.

This procedure accomplishes four things:

  • The tumor becomes deprived of oxygen and nutrients once the blood supply is blocked.
  • Because these drugs are injected directly at the tumor site, this dosage is 20 to 200 times greater than that achieved with standard chemotherapy injected into a vein in the arm.
  • Because the artery is blocked, no blood washes through the tumor. As a result, the drugs stay in the tumor for a much longer time – as long as a month.
  • There is a decrease in side effects because the drugs are trapped in the liver instead of circulating throughout the body.

Will your physician recommend you for this procedure?

Remember, chemoembolization only treats tumors in the liver and will have little or no effect on any other cancer in the body. For example, the following liver cancers may be treated by chemoembolization:

  • hepatoma (primary liver cancer)
  • metastasis (spread) to the liver from:
  • colon cancer
  • carcinoid
  • ocular melanoma
  • sarcomas
  • a primary tumor in another part of the body

Your physician may recommend that you have several tests, including liver function blood tests, and a CAT scan or an MRI of your liver prior to the chemoembolization procedure. Your doctor needs to check these test results to make sure you do not have:

  • any blockage of the portal vein
  • cirrhosis of the liver
  • a blockage of the bile ducts

If you have any of these complications, your doctor may not allow you to have the chemoembolization procedure.

Are there any side effects or complications?

Following the procedure you may have varying degrees of pain, fever and nausea. These symptoms may last a few hours to a few days, and are easily treated by various medications. You may also notice a slight hair loss, rarely perceived by anyone other than yourself.

Serious complications from chemoembolization are rare. In less than 3% of the procedures, the liver tumor killed by the procedure may become infected and abscess. In rare circumstances there can be liver failure.

Will chemoembolization help me?

Remember this is a treatment, not a cure. Approximately 70% of the patients will see improvement in the liver and, depending on the type of liver cancer, it may improve your survival.

How does chemoembolization work?

The liver is unique in having two blood supplies – an artery (the hepatic artery) and a large vein (the portal vein). The normal liver gets about 25% of its blood from the hepatic artery.

When a tumor grows in the liver, it receives almost all of its blood supply from the hepatic artery. Therefore, chemotherapy drugs injected into the hepatic artery at the liver reach the tumor very directly, sparing most of the healthy liver tissue.

Then, when the artery is blocked, nearly all of the blood supply is taken away from the tumor, while the liver continues to be supplied by blood from the portal vein.

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