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Chemoembolization for Liver Cancer: The Procedure

Front view of liver, gallbladder, and blood vessels.

Chemoembolization is a way to treat cancer in the liver. It can be used for cancer that starts in the liver. Or it can be used for cancer that has spread (metastasized) to the liver from other parts of the body. The procedure treats only cancer in the liver. It is done by a specially trained doctor called an interventional radiologist.

How does chemoembolization work?

The hepatic artery is a large blood vessel. It sends blood to the liver. To grow, a liver tumor takes most of its blood from this artery. During the procedure, chemotherapy medicines are put into the hepatic artery. The artery is then blocked off from the rest of the body. This makes sure the medicines stay in the liver. And it cuts off blood to the tumor.

The goals of chemoembolization

  • Block the tumor’s blood flow so it gets no oxygen or nutrients

  • Send high doses of chemotherapy medicines directly to the tumor site

  • Keep chemotherapy medicines in the tumor for long periods of time

  • Reduce side effects to the rest of the body. This is because the medicines do not leave the liver.

Getting ready for the procedure

  • Do not eat or drink anything for 6 hours before the procedure.

  • Tell your health care provider about all your medical conditions and medicines you take. This includes aspirin, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, supplements, street drugs, and herbs. Ask if you should stop taking them.

During the procedure

When you arrive for the procedure, an IV line will be put into your arm. This IV will give you fluids and medicine to prepare your body for the procedure. This preparation may take several hours. To begin the procedure:

  • The interventional radiologist puts a long, flexible tube (catheter) into an artery in your groin.

  • The radiologist puts an X-ray dye (contrast medium) through the catheter. This helps the artery and catheter show up better on X-rays. The radiologist can see the movement of the catheter on a video monitor.

  • The radiologist guides the catheter to the hepatic artery in the liver. He or she then moves it to the tumor.

  • The radiologist injects the chemoembolization medicines through the catheter. He or she then injects a substance that blocks the artery.

  • The catheter is removed. The radiologist puts pressure on the insertion site for 15 minutes. This is to prevent bleeding.

  • You will lie flat for several hours. During this time, the IV line will give you fluids. You will likely stay in the hospital for a few days after the procedure.

Side effects of chemoembolization

Side effects include tiredness, abdominal pain, fever, nausea, and loss of appetite. These may last for several days. Medicines can help lessen certain side effects.

What are the risks and complications of chemoembolization?

  • Blood clot in a blood vessel

  • Infection or bruising where the  catheter was inserted

  • Death of normal liver tissue; which may lead to liver failure

  • Damage to the gallbladder or other nearby organs

  • Problems because of the contrast medium, such as an allergic reaction or kidney damage

  • Damage to an artery

  • Death

Online Medical Reviewer: Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Grossman, Neil, MD
Last Review Date: 10/1/2017
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