Liver cancer treatment and recovery


Treatments for liver cancer

Treatment for liver cancer is tailored to each patient and is dependent on the stage of the cancer, where it is located, and other health concerns.

Liver cancer care teams may include multiple health care specialists including surgical oncologists, liver transplant surgeons, interventional radiologists, pathologists, medical oncologists, radiologists, and radiation oncologists.

Treatment of liver cancer mainly relies on the classification of whether or not the cancer is resectable (able to be removed with surgery).

Non-surgical treatments


Ablation uses an electric current to destroy liver tumors without removing them. This procedure can only be performed on small tumors when surgery is not an effective option.

Note that ablation is less likely to cure liver cancer than surgery.

  • Cryoablation uses liquid nitrogen to freeze and destroy cancer cells.
  • Ethanol ablation is a procedure where concentrated alcohol is injected into the tumor to kill the cancer cells.
  • Microwave ablation uses electromagnetic waves to heat and kill cancer cells.
  • Radiofrequency ablation uses high-energy radio waves to heat up the tumor and kill the cancer cells.

Embolization therapy

In this procedure, a substance is injected into an artery in the liver to block the blood flow to a tumor, helping to kill off the cancer cells. During this procedure, the doctor will place a small tube into the blood vessels that feed the tumor and inject microscopic beads directly into the tumor’s blood supply. The beads attack the tumor in two ways: by reducing the blood supply and releasing radiation or chemotherapy.

The three types of embolization:

  • SIRT (selective internal radiation therapy) is another term for radioembolization.
  • TACE (transarterial chemoembolization) is a kind of chemoembolization.
  • Y-90 refers to a radioactive isotope called Yttrium-90, which fills the microscopic beads that are inserted into the tumor’s blood supply.

Radiation therapy

Radiation is a treatment that uses high-energy rays or particles that destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation is a good option for patients with severe damage to the liver from cirrhosis or hepatitis infections. Two common approaches:

  • External beam radiation therapy (EBRT). This is when the radiation is from a source outside the body, similar to an x-ray but with stronger radiation. The procedure is painless, with multiple treatments over several weeks.
  • Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) is another radiation option that focuses the radiation to a specific area to avoid nearby healthy tissue.

Surgical treatments

Full resection or removal of a liver tumor with a small portion of healthy tissue offers the most favorable outlook. A tumor’s resectability depends on the size and location in the liver, how well the liver functions, and the patient’s overall health.

Partial hepatectomy is a procedure during which part of the liver is removed if the patient has good liver function and is healthy enough for surgery, usually if the liver cancer is at Stage I or Stage II.

Liver transplant

A liver transplant is an option for a small percentage of patients with tumors that cannot be removed surgically. During a liver transplant, the diseased liver is removed and replaced with a healthy donor liver.

To be considered for a transplant, you will meet with a transplant hepatologist for an evaluation and testing. Visit this page to learn more.

Minimally-invasive approaches

Our experts are among the nation’s leaders in minimally invasive techniques for the surgical treatment of liver cancer. The minimally invasive approach involves inserting a camera and delicate surgical instruments into the body through multiple small incisions instead of one large opening. Sometimes a surgical robot may be utilized to allow for more precision and flexibility than would be feasible with conventional surgical instruments.

After a minimally-invasive procedure, your recovery is often faster and less painful than with conventional surgery.

How long can someone live with liver cancer?

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) publishes survival statistics for different types of cancer.

The NCI’s SEER database tracks 5-year relative survival rates for liver cancer in the United States, based on how far the cancer has spread.

This database does not group cancers by AJCC TNM stages (stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, etc.). Instead, it groups cancers into localized, regional, and distant stages:

  • Localized. There is no sign that the cancer has spread outside of the liver.
  • Regional. The cancer has spread outside the liver to nearby structures or lymph nodes.
  • Distant. The cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, such as the lungs or bones.

In general, survival rates for liver cancer patients are higher for those who undergo surgery to remove their cancer, no matter the cancer stage.