Chemotherapy for liver cancer
Chemotherapy (chemo) is treatment with drugs to destroy cancer cells. Systemic (whole body) chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs that are injected into a vein or given by mouth. These drugs enter the bloodstream and reach all areas of the body, making this treatment potentially useful for cancers that have spread to distant organs.
Unfortunately, liver cancer resists most chemo drugs. The drugs that have been most effective as systemic chemo in liver cancer are doxorubicin (Adriamycin), 5-fluorouracil, and cisplatin. But even these drugs shrink only a small portion of tumors, and the responses often do not last long. Even with combinations of drugs, in most studies systemic chemo has not helped patients live longer.
Hepatic artery infusion
Because of the poor response to systemic chemo, doctors have studied putting chemo drugs directly into the hepatic artery to see if it might be more effective. This technique is known as hepatic artery infusion (HAI). The chemo goes into the liver through the hepatic artery, but the healthy liver breaks down most of the drug before it can reach the rest of the body. This gets more chemo to the tumor than systemic chemo without increasing side effects. The drugs most commonly used include floxuridine (FUDR), cisplatin, mitomycin C, and doxorubicin.
Early studies have found that HAI is often effective in shrinking tumors, but more research is still needed. This technique may not be useful in all patients because it often requires surgery to insert a catheter into the hepatic artery, an operation that many liver cancer patients may not be able to tolerate.
Side effects of chemotherapy
Chemo drugs attack cells that are dividing quickly, which is why they work against cancer cells. But other cells in the body, such as those in the bone marrow, the lining of the mouth and intestines, and the hair follicles, also divide quickly. These cells are also likely to be affected by chemo, which can lead to side effects.
The side effects of chemo depend on the type and dose of drugs given and the length of time they are taken. Common side effects include:
- Hair loss
- Mouth sores
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased chance of infections (from low white blood cell counts)
- Easy bruising or bleeding (from low blood platelet counts)
- Fatigue (from low red blood cell counts)
These side effects are usually short-term and go away after treatment is finished. There are often ways to lessen them. For example, drugs can be given to help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting. Be sure to ask your doctor or nurse about drugs to help reduce side effects.
Along with the possible side effects in the list above, some drugs may have their own specific side effects. Ask your health care team what you can expect.
You should report any side effects you notice while getting chemotherapy to your medical team so that you can be treated promptly. In some cases, the doses of the chemotherapy drugs may need to be reduced or treatment may need to be delayed or stopped to prevent side effects from getting worse.
Thinking about taking part in a clinical trial
Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures. Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. In some cases they may be the only way to get access to newer treatments. They are also the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they are not right for everyone.
If you would like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for you, start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials. You can also call our clinical trials matching service at 1-800-303-5691 for a list of studies that meet your medical needs, or see “Clinical Trials” to learn more.
Considering complementary and alternative methods
You may hear about alternative or complementary methods that your doctor hasn’t mentioned to treat your cancer or relieve symptoms. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few.
Complementary methods refer to treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor’s medical treatment. Although some of these methods might be helpful in relieving symptoms or helping you feel better, many have not been proven to work. Some might even be dangerous.
Be sure to talk to your cancer care team about any method you are thinking about using. They can help you learn what is known (or not known) about the method, which can help you make an informed decision. See Complementary and Alternative Medicine to learn more.
Help getting through cancer treatment
Your cancer care team will be your first source of information and support, but there are other resources for help when you need it. Hospital- or clinic-based support services are an important part of your care. These might include nursing or social work services, financial aid, nutritional advice, rehab, or spiritual help.
The American Cancer Society also has programs and services – including rides to treatment, lodging, support groups, and more – to help you get through treatment. Call our National Cancer Information Center at 1-800-227-2345 and speak with one of our trained specialists on call 24 hours a day, every day.
Last Medical Review: 11/18/2014
Last Revised: 01/19/2016