What is chemoembolization?

Chemoembolization is a non-surgical treatment that gives many patients with liver cancer more time with improved quality of life. In most cases (66% of all primary liver cancers and 90% of all secondary or metastatic liver cancers), malignant tumors in the liver are inoperable. Chemoembolization allows for powerful cancer-fighting drugs to be delivered directly to the tumor site without damaging the rest of the liver.

How does chemoembolization work?
The interventional radiologist makes a small nick in the groin, and inserts a catheter into the artery, guiding it to the site of the liver tumor using x-ray images. The interventional radiologist then injects powerful chemotherapy agents, along with tiny, sand-like particles, directly into the tumor. The tiny particles block or “embolize” the artery. The tumor shrinks because blood flow to the artery is blocked, and because the chemotherapy drugs stay in the tumor for up to a month.

Why doesn’t chemoembolization damage the healthy portion of the liver?

Blood flow to the liver is accomplished through two avenues—the portal vein, which supplies 75% of the liver’s blood supply, and the hepatic artery, which supplies 25% of the blood supply and feeds most tumors. The chemotherapy agent is delivered through the hepatic artery, and is not circulated through the rest of the liver or through the bloodstream. The chemotherapy drug is trapped in the cancerous tumor.

How does chemoembolization increase longevity and improve life quality for the liver cancer patient?

In most cases, patients with primary liver cancer die of liver failure as a result of a tumor’s growth and subsequent disturbance of liver function. If the tumor decreases in size, liver function can remain intact. Additionally, about 70% of patients who undergo chemoembolization experience a decrease in pain in the affected area. Perhaps best of all, chemoembolization can be repeated if the shrunken tumor begins growing again, or if new tumors form. While chemoembolization is not a cure for liver cancer, it can provide the patient with additional months of quality life.

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