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.

We understand that having treatment can be a difficult time for people. We're here to support you. If you want to talk, you can:

Chemotherapy for secondary liver cancer

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

The chemotherapy drugs used will depend on where in the body the cancer first started. For example, secondary liver cancer that has spread from the bowel is treated with different drugs than secondary liver cancer that has spread from the breast.

Chemotherapy cannot cure the cancer, but it is often used to:

  • shrink and control the cancer
  • slow down the growth of the cancer
  • relieve symptoms.

A small number of people may have chemotherapy to try to:

  • shrink tumours in the liver so they can be removed by surgery
  • reduce the risk of the cancer coming back after surgery to remove it.

Surgery for secondary liver cancer

Only a small number of people can 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.

Your doctor will tell you if surgery is an option for you. For surgery to be possible, the surgeon needs to be able to remove all of the cancer in the liver. There also needs to be enough liver left behind for you to stay well afterwards. Sometimes you may have surgery with another treatment, such as ablation. Or the surgery may be done in stages.

Hormonal therapy for secondary liver cancer

Doctors sometimes use hormonal therapies. This is most common for cancer that started in the breast or prostate. But hormonal therapies can also be used to treat other cancers that depend on hormones to grow.

Hormones are produced naturally in the body. They act as chemical messengers and affect the growth and activity of cells. Hormones are made by many different organs and glands in the body. Together, these are called the endocrine system.

Hormonal therapies work by changing the production or activity of certain hormones in the body. 

There are different types of hormonal therapy. The type of hormone therapy used depends on the type of cancer. It is usually given to you as tablets or injections. The side effects may be different depending on which drug you have.

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. The drugs target things specific to the cancer cells that make them different from normal cells and help them to survive. Targeted therapy drugs 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 out more about it.

Immunotherapy for secondary liver cancer

Immunotherapy drugs use the immune system to find and attack 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 out more about it.

Tumour ablation for secondary liver cancer

Tumour ablation means destroying the tumour by applying heat or cold directly to it. It is most commonly used to treat cancer that has spread to the liver from the bowel or breast. But sometimes it is used for other types of cancer. 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.

Doctors may use ablation in combination with other treatments, such as chemotherapy.

It is most often used to treat small tumours, when surgery is not possible. It is also sometimes done during surgery. Some people have ablation more than once.

If your doctor thinks ablation may help you, 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.

There are different types of ablation including:

Embolisation treatment for secondary liver cancer

Embolisation is a way of blocking the bloodflow to the cancer in the liver. A substance is injected into a blood vessel in the liver. This reduces the supply of oxygen and energy 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) – a chemotherapy drug injected directly into the liver
  • radiation (called radioembolisation or SIRT) – using tiny radioactive beads (microspheres).
 These treatments are not suitable for everyone. They may be given as part of a clinical trial. Radioembolisation is done less often than chemoembolisation, and is not available in all hospitals.

 

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.

About our information


  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Dr Paul Ross, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.