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Top Treatment Options for Liver Cancer

19 Jun, 2024

Blog author iconDr. Divya Nagpal

Looking for the best treatment options for liver cancer? Dealing with a diagnosis of liver cancer can be overwhelming, but understanding the available treatments can empower you or your loved ones in making informed decisions. From surgical procedures like liver resection and liver transplantation to localized therapies such as radiofrequency ablation and transarterial chemoembolization (TACE), there are various approaches depending on the stage and type of liver cancer. Additionally, advances in targeted therapies and immunotherapy are expanding treatment possibilities, offering new hope in managing this complex disease. Join us as we explore the top treatment options for liver cancer, including how these options are transforming outcomes and providing personalized care across leading medical institutions worldwide.

1. Surgery

Surgery is often considered the primary treatment for liver cancer, especially when the tumour is localized within the liver and the patient is in good overall health. The surgical approach aims to remove cancerous tissue while preserving as much of the healthy liver as possible.

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Types of Surgical Procedures:

a. Hepatectomy:

  • Partial Hepatectomy: Involves removing a portion of the liver affected by cancer. The extent of resection depends on the size and location of the tumour, as well as the liver's functional capacity to regenerate.
  • Total Hepatectomy: Rarely performed, this procedure involves removing the entire liver affected by cancer and is typically followed by a liver transplant.

b. Liver Transplant:

  • Suitable for patients with small tumours or early-stage cancer who are not candidates for partial hepatectomy due to the size or location of the tumour.
  • Involves replacing the diseased liver with a healthy liver from a compatible donor, offering a potential cure as the new liver is free from cancerous cells.

Procedure Details:

  • Pre-operative Evaluation: Comprehensive assessment including imaging studies (CT scan, MRI) and liver function tests to determine the extent of cancer and the suitability for surgery.
  • Surgical Approach: Conducted under general anaesthesia, the surgeon accesses the liver through an abdominal incision (open surgery) or minimally invasive techniques (laparoscopic or robotic-assisted surgery).
  • Recovery: Post-operative care involves monitoring liver function, managing pain, and preventing complications such as infection or bleeding.
  • Long-term Outlook: Successful surgery can lead to the complete removal of cancerous tissue, allowing for recovery and potential long-term survival. Follow-up care involves regular monitoring to detect any signs of recurrence.

Suitability and Risks: The patient's overall health, the extent of liver damage, and tumour characteristics (size, location) influence the feasibility and success of surgery. Potential risks include bleeding, infection, liver failure, and complications related to anaesthesia. The risk of complications is higher in patients with underlying liver disease or extensive tumour involvement.

Alternative Options: Surgery may not be suitable for all patients, especially those with advanced-stage cancer or significant underlying liver dysfunction. In such cases, alternative treatments like ablation therapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, or chemotherapy may be considered.

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Surgery remains a cornerstone in the treatment of localized liver cancer, offering a potentially curative approach for eligible patients. The decision to undergo surgery should be made in consultation with a multidisciplinary team of specialists, including hepatobiliary surgeons, oncologists, and transplant specialists, to ensure personalized care and optimal treatment outcomes.

2. Ablation Therapy

Ablation therapy involves the destruction of cancerous tissues using various energy-based techniques. It is particularly suitable for patients with small tumours or those who are not candidates for surgery due to the tumour's location or other health considerations.

Types of Ablation Therapies:

a.Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA):

  • Mechanism: Utilizes high-energy radio waves to heat and destroy cancer cells.
  • Guidance: Typically guided by imaging techniques such as ultrasound or CT scans to precisely target the tumor.
  • Effectiveness: Effective for small tumours or lesions located in parts of the liver where surgical removal may be challenging.
  • Procedure: A needle-like electrode is inserted into the tumour, emitting radiofrequency waves that create heat, effectively destroying the cancerous tissue while minimizing damage to surrounding healthy liver tissue.

b. Microwave Ablation:

Mechanism: Uses microwaves to generate heat within the tumour, causing thermal destruction of cancer cells.
Guidance: Similar to RFA, it is guided by imaging techniques to ensure accurate targeting of the tumor.
Advantages: Considered effective for larger tumours or tumours located deep within the liver that may be difficult to reach with other treatment modalities.
Procedure: Involves inserting a microwave antenna into the tumour, where microwaves generate heat, leading to tumour cell death through thermal ablation.

c. Cryoablation:

  • Mechanism: Involves the application of extreme cold temperatures to freeze and destroy cancerous tissues.
  • Indications: Particularly beneficial for tumours located near sensitive structures within the liver or for patients who are not surgical candidates.
  • Procedure: Liquid nitrogen or argon gas is circulated through a probe inserted into the tumour, freezing the tissue and causing cellular destruction.
  • Advantages: Minimizes damage to surrounding healthy liver tissue and nerves, making it suitable for tumours near critical structures.


  • Patient Selection: Ablation therapy is suitable for patients with early-stage liver cancer or those with small, localized tumours.
  • Effectiveness: Offers a minimally invasive alternative to surgery, with high success rates in achieving local tumour control.
  • Safety Profile: Generally well-tolerated, with lower risks of complications compared to surgical procedures.
  • Follow-up: Regular imaging and follow-up evaluations are essential to monitor treatment efficacy and detect any signs of tumour recurrence.

Ablation therapy represents an important treatment option for patients with liver cancer, offering a less invasive approach to destroy cancerous tissues while preserving liver function. The choice of a specific ablation technique depends on tumour characteristics, location, and patient-specific factors, underscoring the need for personalized treatment plans developed in collaboration with a multidisciplinary team of healthcare providers.

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3. Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells or shrink tumours. It is a localized treatment option for liver cancer, aiming to target and eradicate cancer cells while minimizing damage to surrounding healthy tissues.

Types of Radiation Therapy:

  • External Beam Radiation Therapy (EBRT):

  • Mechanism: Involves directing radiation beams from outside the body towards the cancerous area within the liver.
  • Precise Targeting: Utilizes imaging techniques such as CT scans or MRI to precisely locate the tumor and deliver radiation with accuracy.
  • Treatment Sessions: Typically administered over multiple sessions (fractions) to deliver the total prescribed dose while allowing healthy tissues time to recover between treatments.
  • Indications: Used as a primary treatment for liver cancer or in combination with other therapies to control tumor growth and relieve symptoms.
  • Advantages: Minimizes radiation exposure to surrounding healthy organs and tissues, reducing the risk of side effects.
  • Internal Radiation Therapy (Brachytherapy):

    • Mechanism: Involves placing radioactive materials directly into or near the tumor site within the liver.
    • Delivery of Radiation: Radioactive sources emit radiation that penetrates and destroys cancer cells while sparing nearby healthy tissues.
    • Precision: Allows for high-dose radiation delivery directly to the tumor, enhancing treatment effectiveness.
    • Procedure: Radioactive seeds or pellets are implanted temporarily or permanently into the liver through thin needles or catheters under imaging guidance.
    • Applications: Particularly beneficial for tumors that are unresectable (cannot be removed by surgery) or in cases where external radiation may not effectively target the tumour.


    • Patient Selection: Radiation therapy is considered for patients with localized liver cancer, either as a primary treatment or in combination with other therapies depending on tumor size, location, and overall health status.
    • Side Effects: Potential side effects may include fatigue, nausea, skin irritation at the treatment site, and, rarely, damage to nearby organs. These are typically managed with supportive care and close monitoring.
    • Efficacy: Effectiveness in controlling tumour growth and improving quality of life varies depending on tumour response and individual patient factors.
    • Integration with Other Treatments: Often used in combination with surgery, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy to maximize treatment outcomes for liver cancer patients.

    Radiation therapy offers a valuable treatment option for patients with liver cancer, providing targeted delivery of radiation to eradicate cancer cells while preserving normal liver function and minimizing side effects. Personalized treatment plans, developed in collaboration with a multidisciplinary team of specialists, ensure optimal management and care tailored to the individual needs of each patient. Regular follow-up assessments are essential to monitor treatment response and adjust therapies as needed for improved outcomes.

    4. Targeted Therapy

    Targeted therapy for liver cancer focuses on specific molecular targets involved in cancer cell growth and survival. Unlike traditional chemotherapy, which affects all rapidly dividing cells, targeted therapies aim to selectively target cancer cells while minimizing damage to normal tissues.

    Types of Targeted Therapies:

    1. Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitors (TKIs):

    • Mechanism: TKIs work by blocking specific enzymes (tyrosine kinases) that are involved in signalling pathways essential for cancer cell growth and proliferation.
    • Effectiveness: By inhibiting these pathways, TKIs can slow down tumour growth and progression in patients with advanced liver cancer.
    • Examples: Sorafenib and lenvatinib are examples of TKIs approved for the treatment of advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). They target multiple tyrosine kinases involved in angiogenesis (blood vessel formation) and tumour cell proliferation.
  • Monoclonal Antibodies:

    • Mechanism: Monoclonal antibodies are designed to target specific proteins present on the surface of cancer cells or within the tumour microenvironment.
    • Enhanced Immune Response: By binding to these targets, monoclonal antibodies can help the immune system recognize and attack liver cancer cells more effectively.
    • Examples: Bevacizumab is a monoclonal antibody that targets vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a protein involved in angiogenesis. It is used in combination with other therapies for the treatment of advanced HCC to inhibit tumour blood vessel formation and growth.

    Clinical Application:

    • Patient Selection: Targeted therapies are typically used in patients with advanced liver cancer or those who have not responded to other treatments.
    • Combination Therapies: Often used in combination with other treatment modalities such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy to enhance treatment efficacy.
    • Side Effects: Side effects of targeted therapies may include hypertension, fatigue, diarrhoea, and skin reactions, which are managed through supportive care and dose adjustments.
    • Monitoring: Regular monitoring of treatment response through imaging studies and laboratory tests is crucial to evaluate tumour response and adjust therapy as needed.

    Targeted therapy represents a promising approach in the treatment landscape for liver cancer, offering selective and effective treatments that can improve outcomes for patients with advanced disease. As research continues to uncover new molecular targets and develop innovative therapies, personalized treatment plans tailored to each patient's tumour biology and health status will continue to play a critical role in optimizing treatment outcomes and quality of life.

    5. Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs to kill cancer cells or inhibit their growth throughout the body. While less commonly used as a primary treatment for liver cancer, it may be considered in certain cases, particularly for advanced stages or when other treatments have not been effective in controlling the disease.


    • Administration: Chemotherapy drugs can be administered orally or intravenously (IV), allowing them to travel through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body, including those in the liver.
    • Cellular Targets: These drugs work by disrupting the cell cycle of rapidly dividing cancer cells, leading to cell death.
    • Combination Therapies: Often used in combination with other treatments such as surgery, radiation therapy, or targeted therapy to improve treatment outcomes.

    Clinical Application:

    • Indications: Chemotherapy may be considered for patients with advanced liver cancer that has spread beyond the liver (metastatic disease) or when surgery or other treatments are not feasible.
    • Types of Drugs: Common chemotherapy agents used for liver cancer include doxorubicin, cisplatin, and fluorouracil (5-FU). Newer combinations and formulations are continuously being researched to improve efficacy and reduce side effects.
    • Side Effects: Potential side effects include nausea, vomiting, hair loss, fatigue, and increased susceptibility to infections. Supportive care and medications can help manage these side effects.

    Monitoring and Follow-up:

    • Response Assessment: Regular imaging studies (CT scans, MRI) and blood tests are used to monitor tumour response to chemotherapy and adjust treatment as needed.
    • Quality of Life: Maintaining quality of life is a key consideration in the management of chemotherapy-related side effects, with supportive care tailored to individual patient needs.

    6. Immunotherapy

     Immunotherapy represents a novel approach to cancer treatment that harnesses the power of the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells. It has shown promising results in the treatment of various cancers, including liver cancer, particularly in cases where traditional treatments have been less effective.


    • Enhancing Immune Response: Immunotherapy drugs, such as checkpoint inhibitors or monoclonal antibodies, work by either activating the immune system's ability to recognize cancer cells or by blocking mechanisms that allow cancer cells to evade immune detection and attack.
    • Specific Targets: These therapies target specific molecules or proteins in cancer cells, enabling immune cells to identify and destroy them more effectively.
    • Clinical Application: Immunotherapy is increasingly being studied and used in clinical settings for patients with advanced liver cancer, either as a standalone treatment or in combination with other therapies.

    Types of Immunotherapy:

    • Checkpoint Inhibitors: Drugs like pembrolizumab and nivolumab target checkpoint proteins (PD-1/PD-L1) that prevent immune cells from attacking cancer cells, thereby enhancing the immune response against liver cancer.
    • Monoclonal Antibodies: Designed to target specific proteins on cancer cells or within the tumour microenvironment, these antibodies can help stimulate an immune response against liver cancer cells.
    • Patient Selection: Immunotherapy is typically considered for patients with advanced liver cancer or those who have not responded to other treatments. Biomarker testing may be used to identify patients who are likely to benefit from specific immunotherapy drugs.
    • Side Effects: While generally well-tolerated, immunotherapy can cause immune-related side effects (e.g., fatigue, rash, diarrhoea) that require close monitoring and management by healthcare providers.
    • Research and Development: Ongoing clinical trials are exploring new immunotherapy approaches and combinations to further improve outcomes for patients with liver cancer.

    7. Clinical Trials

     Clinical trials are research studies that evaluate the safety and efficacy of new treatments, therapies, or interventions for liver cancer. Participating in clinical trials provides patients with access to innovative treatments that are not yet widely available and contributes to advancing scientific knowledge in cancer treatment.

    Benefits of Clinical Trials:

    • Access to New Therapies: Participants may receive new treatments or therapies that have shown promise in preclinical studies or early-stage trials.
    • Close Monitoring: Patients in clinical trials receive careful monitoring of their health and treatment responses, often with frequent visits and tests.
    • Contribution to Research: By participating in clinical trials, patients contribute to the development of new treatments and help improve future standards of care for liver cancer.


    • Informed Consent: Before enrolling in a clinical trial, patients receive detailed information about the study's purpose, potential risks and benefits, and their rights as participants.
    • Patient Eligibility: Each clinical trial has specific eligibility criteria based on factors such as cancer stage, previous treatments, and overall health status.
    • Types of Trials: Trials may involve new drugs, therapies, surgical techniques, or combinations of treatments aimed at improving outcomes for patients with liver cancer.

    Chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and participation in clinical trials represent evolving treatment options for liver cancer, offering hope for improved outcomes and quality of life for patients. Personalized treatment approaches, guided by multidisciplinary teams and informed by ongoing research, are crucial in tailoring therapies to individual patient needs and maximizing treatment effectiveness.

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    Each treatment option plays a crucial role in the management of liver cancer, and the choice of treatment depends on factors such as the stage of cancer, the location of the tumour, and the overall health of the patient. Consulting with a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals is essential to developing a personalized treatment plan that optimizes outcomes and quality of life for individuals with liver cancer.

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    Consulting with a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals, including surgeons, oncologists, and specialists in liver disease, is crucial. They can develop a personalized treatment plan based on the patient's specific cancer stage, tumor characteristics, and overall health.