Chemoembolization

If you have primary liver cancer, or liver cancer that has metastasized from elsewhere in your body, chemoembolization may be part of your treatment. Our multidisciplinary, interventional radiology team* works closely with your referring physician to ensure you receive the best treatment to meet your needs. And, our clinical nurse coordinators assist you in planning, scheduling and following up after your treatment.

What is chemoembolization?

Chemoembolization is used for tumors that cannot be removed surgically because of their location or the number of tumors present. It is a palliative, not a curative, treatment, but can be extremely effective in treating primary liver cancers and some types of metastatic tumors—especially when combined with other therapies. The treatment works to reduce or cut off the blood supply to your tumor.

Your liver is unique because it has two blood supplies. The portal vein provides 75 percent of the liver’s blood supply and the hepatic artery supplies the remaining 25 percent. Tumors that grow in the liver typically receive their blood supply from the hepatic artery, which make chemoembolization possible. The procedure is usually done on an outpatient, same-day basis.

How chemoembolization works

Northwestern Medicine interventional radiologists insert a catheter into your liver’s blood supply to attack the cancer in two ways. First, chemotherapy drugs are injected directly into the blood supply of the tumor. This gives the drugs more time and contact with the tumor to work and destroy the cancerous cells. Because the chemotherapy is delivered directly to the tumor, stronger doses can be given than would be possible during standard chemotherapy, which is injected through a vein in your arm. Second, a blocking agent, called an embolizer, is used to stop the blood supply to the tumors. This starves the tumor of oxygen and nutrients, causing them to shrink. Combining chemotherapy with an embolizer has a more powerful effect than if either was given alone. Chemoembolization requires a one to two day hospital stay.

Benefits and risks

Chemoembolization offers key benefits, including:

  • Injecting chemotherapeutic drugs into the cancer site lessens side effects, as only a small amount of the medicine enters your bloodstream.
  • This procedure can help prevent the growth of the tumor or tumors in your liver, while potentially shrinking them, preserving liver function and allowing you to have a relatively normal quality of life.
  • This treatment can be repeated every four to eight weeks or used in combination with other types of therapy to control your liver cancer.

Risks following chemoembolization, include:

  • Fever (short-term in 10 percent of patients)
  • Nausea and vomiting (nausea can last up to two weeks, vomiting for a few days)
  • Fatigue
  • Upper right abdominal discomfort (can last from a few days up to a week)
  • Infection or bleeding
  • Small chance of the embolization material or particles becoming lodged in the wrong place and depriving normal tissue in your body of its blood supply
  • Allergic reaction to the contrast dye used for the X-ray
  • Kidney damage for those with diabetes or pre-existing kidney disease

Potential effects vary for every patient. Medications are given to help prevent or relieve most of these side effects. In addition, steps can be taken to prevent allergic reactions to contrast dye and lessen the chance of kidney damage for those at risk.

Related Resources

Patient Education: If you are having chemoembolization, understand how to prepare before, during and after the procedure, as well as proper follow-up care.

Legal Information
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In the spirit of keeping you well-informed, the physician(s) identified are neither agents nor employees of Northwestern Memorial HealthCare or any of its affiliate organizations. They have selected our facilities as places where they want to treat and care for their private patients.