Treating cancer that has spread to the liver

If cancer has spread to the liver (secondary liver cancer) and cannot be removed with surgery, the main treatment is usually chemotherapy. This may be given with a targeted therapy.

Other treatments, such as radiofrequency ablation, cryotherapy and radiotherapy, may also be used to treat secondary liver cancer. They may relieve symptoms and help to control the cancer for some time. If you have secondary liver cancer, your doctor will talk to you about what treatments may be the most helpful.

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA)

RFA uses heat to destroy cancer cells. An electrode (like a needle) sends an electric current (radiofrequency) to the tumour. The electric current heats the cancer cells to high temperatures and destroys (ablates) them. As the cancer cells die, the area that has been treated gradually shrinks and becomes scar tissue.

RFA doesn’t always destroy all the cancer cells. Some people may need to be treated more than once. RFA can be repeated if the tumour starts to grow again.

The most common way to give RFA involves a doctor placing one or more electrodes through the skin into the tumour. A CT scanner shows the position of the liver and tumours on a screen. This guides the doctor as they put each electrode into place.

Sometimes, a similar treatment called microwave ablation (MWA) is used.


Doctors can also use very low temperatures to destroy cancer cells. This is called cryotherapy. Like with RFA, they put an instrument into the body towards the tumour.


Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Doctors may use specialised radiotherapy techniques to treat secondary cancer in the liver.

Selective internal radiotherapy (SIRT) 

A doctor injects tiny radioactive beads into a blood vessel close to the tumours. The radiation destroys the blood vessels and stops blood flow to the tumours. Without a blood supply, the tumours shrink and may die. The radiation only travels a few millimetres so other parts of the liver are not affected and it doesn’t make you radioactive.

Stereotactic radiotherapy

This is a new way of giving radiotherapy that may sometimes be used if surgery or radiofrequency ablation aren’t suitable.

Stereotactic radiotherapy treatment is given using a radiotherapy machine, which delivers beams of radiotherapy from many different angles. The beams overlap at the tumour. The radiotherapy dose to the tumour is therefore very high, but the dose to surrounding tissues is very low.

This treatment is only available in a small number of hospitals in the UK. Your specialist can give you more information.

We have more information on stereotactic radiotherapy.

Back to Treating

Making treatment decisions

Your doctors may tell you there are different options for your treatment. Having the right information will help you make the right decision for you.

Surgery explained

Surgery involves removing all or part of the cancer with an operation. It is an important treatment for many cancers.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to treat many different types of cancer. It is most commonly given as an injection into a vein or as tablets or capsules.

Clinical trials

Many people are offered the chance to take part in a clinical trial as part of their treatment. Doctors also use clinical trials to improve cancer treatment and care.

Life after cancer treatment

You might be thinking about how to get back to normal following treatment. Find advice, information and support about coping with and after cancer.