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Chemoembolization

The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on September 21, 2021.

In the United States, it’s estimated that about 42,230 people will be diagnosed with liver cancer in 2021, with more men than women affected, according to the American Cancer Society. If you have liver cancer, or you have cancer that has spread to the liver, your care team may suggest evidence-informed treatment options for the stage and the type of cancer, taking into account your comfort and well-being as well.

One commonly used liver cancer treatment is chemoembolization, designed to shrink the size of the tumor, helping you enjoy an improved quality of life.

What is chemoembolization?

Embolization is a treatment method for liver cancer in which your doctor injects a substance directly into an artery to block blood flow to the tumor. Chemoembolization is a specific type of embolization therapy. It works by combining embolization with chemotherapy.

During chemoembolization, chemotherapy medicine is fed directly into the hepatic artery, which pumps blood to the tumor, via a catheter. By inserting the drugs directly into the tumor site, the chemotherapy is more likely to reach the tumor and have the desired effect. This also helps reduce side effects, as the chemotherapy drugs have less opportunity to reach normal, healthy cells.

Chemoembolization is often used for tumors that can’t be removed via surgery or ablation due to their size or stage. It’s also used for palliative care treatment or when the patient is awaiting a liver transplant. Your care team may also refer to this procedure as transarterial chemoembolization, or TACE.

How to prepare

If your care team has recommended chemoembolization, you may undergo a series of tests leading up to the procedure, such as blood work and computed tomography (CT) scans. This helps you and your care team learn more about the size and shape of the tumor.

You’ll also want to tell your doctor about each type of medication you’re taking, to ensure they won’t interfere with the treatment.

Your doctor can talk you through the chemoembolization process in advance, so that you know what to expect on the day of treatment. This is a good opportunity to ask any questions you may have, helping you feel comfortable and prepared.

Also, consider making arrangements for a ride home in case you feel tired or groggy after the procedure.

What to expect

During the chemoembolization procedure, you’ll first be given a local anesthetic, and possibly a sedative. The doctor performing the procedure, usually an interventional radiologist, makes a small insertion into the skin near the groin and places a catheter into the hepatic artery.

Chemoembolization works by attaching the chemotherapy drugs to small beads or sponges, which helps block blood flow to the tumor. The drugs enter the tumor site via the catheter.

After the treatment is finished, you’ll need to lie down for several hours. You may also spend the night in the hospital.

Side effects

Some patients may experience side effects after undergoing chemoembolization, including:

  • Fever
  • Pain and soreness
  • Fatigue

Your care team is there to help, so give them a call at any point if you’re feeling unwell and experiencing side effects. They may be able to offer medication to ease your symptoms.

Results

Several weeks after your chemoembolization, your doctor will likely schedule an imaging test, such as a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or CT scan. This allows your care team to get a better look at your tumor and see whether it has reduced in size as a result of treatment.

Based on the outcome, your doctor may recommend another round of chemoembolization or discuss additional treatment or care options.

Waiting for results can always be a stressful time, as you may feel scared or uncertain about what’s happening. It’s always helpful to speak with your care team about your concerns and ask them any questions, as this may help you understand and make more informed decisions about your health.

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