Radiation therapy for liver cancer
Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. There are different kinds of radiation therapy.
External beam radiation therapy
This type of radiation therapy focuses radiation delivered from outside the body on the cancer. This can sometimes be used to shrink liver tumors to relieve symptoms such as pain, but it is not used as often as other local treatments such as ablation or embolization. Although liver cancer cells are sensitive to radiation, this treatment can't be used at very high doses because normal liver tissue is also easily damaged by radiation.
Before your treatments start, the radiation team will take careful measurements to determine the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. Radiation therapy is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is stronger. The procedure itself is painless. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – usually takes longer. Most often, radiation treatments are given 5 days a week for several weeks.
With newer radiation techniques such as 3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT), doctors can better target liver tumors while reducing the radiation to nearby healthy tissues. This may make it more effective and reduce side effects.
Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) is a technique that allows treatment to be completed in a short-time. Radiation therapy usually means getting small doses of radiation 5 days a week for several weeks, SBRT uses very focused beams of high-dose radiation given on one or a few days. Beams are aimed at the tumor from many different angles. To target the radiation precisely, the person is put in a specially designed body frame for each treatment.
As mentioned in the "Embolization therapy for liver cancer" section, tumors in the liver can be treated with radiation by injecting small radioactive beads into the hepatic artery. They lodge in the liver near tumors and give off small amounts of radiation that travel only a short distance.
Side effects of radiation therapy
Side effects of external radiation therapy can include:
- Skin changes, which range from redness (like a sunburn) to blistering and peeling where the radiation enters the body
- Nausea and vomiting
- Low blood counts
These improve after treatment ends.
Side effects tend to be more severe if radiation and chemotherapy are given together.
For more information on radiation therapy, visit our website or see our document Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.
Last Medical Review: 11/18/2014
Last Revised: 01/19/2016