About treatment for secondary liver cancer

Treatment for secondary cancer in the liver usually aims to control the cancer for as long as possible and reduce any symptoms.

The treatment you have depends on:

  • where the cancer has spread from (the primary cancer)
  • which parts of the liver are affected
  • whether other parts of the body are affected.

 

Chemotherapy for secondary liver cancer

Chemotherapy is the most common treatment for secondary cancer in the liver.

It may be given:

  • to try to shrink and control the cancer
  • before liver surgery, to try to shrink the cancer – this might make an operation more successful
  • after liver surgery, to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back.

Where the cancer started in the body (the primary site) will affect:

  • whether you have chemotherapy
  • which chemotherapy drugs you have.

For example, if you have breast cancer that has spread to the liver, you will have chemotherapy drugs that are used to treat breast cancer.

We have more information about the side effects of chemotherapy.

 

Surgery for secondary liver cancer

Only a small number of people will be able to have surgery. It is usually only possible for bowel cancers or neuroendocrine tumours that have spread to the liver. But it may occasionally be an option for other types of cancer.

Surgery is most commonly used if the cancer affects just a few areas of the liver and if there is no cancer anywhere else in the body.

Hormonal therapy for secondary liver cancer

The body makes hormones. They control how certain organs or cells work, how they grow, and what they produce.

Some cancers need hormones to grow, for example many breast cancers.

Hormonal therapies work by:

  • lowering the levels of particular hormones in the body
  • stopping the cancer cells from using hormones.

Hormonal therapies can slow down or stop the cancer cells from growing. They can shrink the cancer and reduce or get rid of symptoms.

We have more information about different hormonal therapy drugs and their side effects.

Targeted therapy for secondary liver cancer

Targeted therapy drugs are sometimes used to treat secondary cancer in the liver. They target differences between cancer cells and normal cells. They may be used with other treatments, such as chemotherapy and surgery.

Where the cancer started in your body (the primary site) will affect:

  • whether targeted therapy drugs are suitable for you
  • which types of targeted therapy drugs you may have.

For example, if you have bowel cancer that has spread to the liver, you may have targeted therapy drugs that are used to treat bowel cancer.

Before doctors can give you some types of targeted therapy drug, they need to test your cancer cells. This is to find out if the drug is likely to work for you.

If you know the name of your targeted therapy drug, you can use our list of treatments to find it. This gives more information about:

  • what each treatment is
  • how it is given
  • possible side effects.

 

Immunotherapy for secondary liver cancer

Immunotherapy drugs stimulate the immune system to fight cancer cells.

Immunotherapy drugs are sometimes used if the cancer started:

  • in the lungs
  • as a skin cancer called melanoma.

Where the cancer started in your body (the primary site) will affect:

  • whether immunotherapy drugs are suitable for you
  • which types of targeted therapy drugs you may have.

For example, if you have lung cancer that has spread to the liver, you may have immunotherapy drugs that are used to treat lung cancer.

Immunotherapy drugs are usually given as a drip (infusion) in the outpatient clinic.

If you know the name of your immunotherapy drug, you can use our list of treatments to find it. This gives more information about:

  • what each treatment is
  • how it is given
  • possible side effects.

Side effects of immunotherapy drugs

Some of the common side effects of immunotherapy drugs are:

  • diarrhoea
  • tiredness
  • a skin rash.

Because of the way immunotherapy drugs work, they can sometimes cause the immune system to attack other parts of the body. This is not common. But if it happens, it can cause serious side effects in some parts of the body, such as the lungs. Sometimes the treatment may need to be stopped. You may need to take steroids to suppress your immune system.

Your doctor or nurse will explain the side effects of immunotherapy drugs to you. It is very important to tell them about any side effects you get.

 

Tumour ablation for secondary liver cancer

Ablation destroys the tumour by heating or freezing it. It is most commonly used as a treatment for people with cancer that started in the bowel. Occasionally, secondary liver cancer that started in other parts of the body may be treated with ablation.

It is most often used to treat small tumours. It may be used if you have already had surgery or if a liver resection is not possible. It is also sometimes done during a liver resection.

It may also be offered as part of a clinical trial. Your cancer doctor can explain if this type of treatment may be suitable for you.

Ablation is often used in combination with other treatments, such as chemotherapy.

If your doctor thinks ablation may be helpful in your situation, they can refer you to a hospital that does this treatment. Ablation treatments are only available in some specialist hospitals, so you may have to travel for treatment.

Types of ablation

Types of ablation include:

  • radiofrequency ablation
  • microwave ablation
  • laser ablation
  • cryotherapy.

We have more information about radiofrequency ablation. Other types of ablation are done in a similar way and have similar side effects.

 

Embolisation treatment for secondary liver cancer

Embolisation is a way of blocking the bloodflow to the cancer in the liver. This reduces the supply of oxygen and food to the cancer, which can make it shrink or stop it from growing.

Embolisation can be given in combination with:

  • chemotherapy (called chemoembolisation or TACE)
  • radiation (called radioembolisation or SIRT).

In chemoembolisation, a chemotherapy drug is injected directly into the liver.

Radioembolisation uses tiny, radioactive beads (microspheres) to treat secondary cancer in the liver. Doctors are still trying to find out how well this treatment works for secondary cancer in the liver. Because of this, it is most likely to be given as part of a clinical trial. It is most commonly used to treat cancer that:

  • has spread to the liver from the bowel
  • cannot be removed by surgery or ablation.

 

Radiotherapy for secondary liver cancer

Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. Sometimes people have a type of radiotherapy called stereotactic radiotherapy for secondary liver cancer.

Stereotactic radiotherapy (SABR) gives targeted treatment to the tumour. It is sometimes used if surgery or ablation are not suitable. A specially adapted radiotherapy machine delivers beams of radiotherapy from many different angles. This allows the doctor to give a very high dose to the tumour, while keeping the dose to surrounding tissues very low. Stereotactic radiotherapy is only available in a few specialist centres. Your specialist can give you more information.

 

Supportive or palliative therapies

Supportive or palliative therapies are used to help control symptoms and improve quality of life. They are also used together with other treatments.

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