Radiation for liver cancer plays a crucial role in treating the disease. It delivers precise, controlled radiation doses to the tumor site.

While treatment options for liver cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, and targeted therapies, radiation therapy has emerged as a valuable tool in managing this disease.

The aim is to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors, alleviating symptoms and improving survival rates. Although the outlook can vary, 3D conformal radiation therapy (3DCRT) is one of the most effective treatments for liver cancer. The disease has a 1-year survival rate of 51.6% and a 3-year survival rate of 19.9%.

Read on to learn more about radiation for liver cancer, how it works, its success rates, and risks.

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Radiation therapy works by delivering high-energy radiation to the tumor cells in the liver, damaging their DNA and inhibiting their ability to divide and grow. This leads to their destruction, helping shrink tumors.

However, cancer cells do not die immediately. It may take days or weeks of treatment before the genetic material in the cancer cells is damaged enough to kill them. The cells continue to die for weeks or months after a person finishes the radiation therapy.

Radiation for liver cancer aims to selectively target cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy tissues surrounding the liver.

The choice of radiation therapy technique depends on the characteristics of the liver cancer, its stage, location, and the individual’s overall health. Doctors may use external or internal radiation for liver cancer.

External beam radiotherapy (EBRT)

In EBRT, a machine generates radiation beams and directs them toward the tumor from outside the body. The radiation oncologist carefully plans the treatment to ensure the tumor receives an adequate radiation dose.

A person may have multiple sessions over several weeks, with each lasting a few minutes.

Newer external radiation techniques, such as stereotactic body radiation therapy, allow oncologists to target liver tumors while limiting radiation to nearby healthy tissues.

Another example is 3DCRT, which uses computers to create a 3D image of the tumor. This allows doctors to give the highest possible radiation dose to the tumor while sparing healthy tissue.

Selective internal radiotherapy (SIRT)

SIRT is a form of internal radiotherapy that is also called radioembolization. It delivers targeted radiation directly to the tumor site.

This technique combines the benefits of radiation therapy and embolization, which is the process of blocking the blood supply to the tumor.

During SIRT, a doctor injects millions of tiny radioactive microspheres into the hepatic artery, the main blood supply to the liver. These microspheres become lodged within the small blood vessels surrounding the tumor, emitting radiation over time, effectively treating the tumor from the inside.

The success rate of radiation for liver cancer can vary depending on several factors. These may include:

  • the size and location of the tumor
  • the stage of the cancer
  • the overall health of the individual
  • the specific radiation technique

In general, radiation therapy is an effective option for liver cancer and can provide significant benefits.

The 3DCRT technique is one of the most effective treatments for liver cancer. Studies show the 1-, 2-, and 3-year survival rates are 51.6%, 28.4%, and 19.9%, respectively.

Like all medications and treatments, radiation therapy comes with possible risks and side effects. Some common side effects include:

These side effects usually resolve within a few weeks after the end of treatment.

A more severe side effect is radiation-induced liver disease (RILD). It can occur several months after treatment, and while it is often temporary, it can be life threatening.

Signs and symptoms of RILD include:

  • atypical liver function tests
  • enlarged liver and spleen
  • fluid buildup in the abdomen, which doctors call ascites
  • yellowing of the skin or eyes, which is known as jaundice

In addition to radiation for liver cancer, there are other treatment options a doctor may recommend. These include:

  • Surgical resection: This is useful in early-stage liver cancer. It involves surgically removing the tumor along with a margin of healthy tissue. Liver transplantation may be an option for individuals with localized tumors who meet specific criteria.
  • Ablation techniques: These techniques, such as radiofrequency ablation and microwave ablation, use heat or cold to destroy cancer cells. They are suitable for small tumors that are limited in number and size.
  • Chemoembolization: Involves delivering chemotherapy drugs directly into the liver arteries supplying the tumor while also blocking the blood supply to the tumor. It can help shrink the tumor and control its growth.
  • Targeted therapy drugs: These target specific molecules involved in the growth and spread of cancer cells. They may help in advanced liver cancer that doctors cannot treat with surgery or ablation.
  • Immunotherapy: This uses medications that stimulate the immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells. It may help in advanced liver cancer.

Asking a doctor relevant questions can help a person gather information and make informed decisions. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Is radiation therapy a suitable treatment option for my specific case of liver cancer?
  • What are the potential benefits and risks of radiation therapy?
  • How does radiation therapy work in treating liver cancer?
  • What is the recommended treatment schedule and duration for radiation therapy?
  • What side effects can I expect during and after radiation therapy?
  • Are there any alternative treatment options available for my condition?
  • What is the success rate of radiation therapy in treating liver cancer?
  • How will the treatment be monitored and evaluated for effectiveness?

Radiation therapy is a treatment option for liver cancer. It delivers targeted radiation from an external or internal source to the tumor to destroy cancer cells.

While radiation therapy has side effects, such as skin changes and fatigue, they are usually temporary.

To make informed decisions, a person should ask a doctor about the suitability, side effects, success rates, treatment schedule, and available options.