Chemoembolization: A Minimally Invasive Approach to Treating Cancer

liver cancer patient

As vascular specialists, interventional radiologists target specific illnesses and diseases through image guidance and small devices, which they use through blood vessels to reach a part of the body that requires treatment. 

One such treatment is chemoembolization, a minimally invasive procedure performed to shrink or destroy cancerous liver tumors while sparing most healthy liver tissue.

In this article, Dr. Ben Paxton, a specially trained Interventional Radiologist of Vascular & Interventional Specialists of Prescott, and Dr. Iyad Hamarneh, Oncologist of Arizona Oncology Associates, will discuss more about chemoembolization and how it’s changing the game in treating cancerous tumors.

Chemoembolization for Cancerous Liver Tumor

Chemoembolization is a minimally invasive procedure to treat liver cancer or cancer from other areas that have spread to the liver (metastasized). 

During the procedure, the doctor injects chemotherapy drugs and other synthetic substances called embolic agents into the blood vessel of a cancerous tumor. Doing so cuts off blood supply to the tumor and traps the chemotherapy drugs inside it.

Most deaths from liver cancer occur due to liver failure. It happens when cancer gets confined to the liver, and the tumor continues to grow. Chemoembolization aims to prevent tumor growth and potentially preserve liver function.

Primary Liver Cancer vs. Secondary Liver Cancer

image of chemoembolization

“Data from published studies on the procedure show that it is effective in up to 70 percent of patients in preventing disease progression,” said Dr. Paxton.

Liver cancer can be a primary or secondary cancer. 

If it is primary cancer, the cancer tumor growth originates in the liver. This type of cancer is typically associated with liver cirrhosis or from Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C infection.

If it is secondary cancer, tumor cells have metastasized—spread—from other organs in the body. Patients with other types of cancer are at risk for developing liver cancer since the liver acts as a holding area for circulating cancer cells.

While surgery still offers the best chance of a cure, it may not be possible for as many as two-thirds of primary liver cancer patients and as many as 90 percent of those with secondary liver cancer.

Chemoembolization vs. Chemotherapy

“Chemoembolization is a minimally invasive treatment for liver cancer that can be used when there is too much tumor to treat with surgical approaches,” said Dr. Paxton.

This type of treatment attacks the cancerous tumor from inside the body while keeping the surrounding tissues and organs healthy. This is different from systemic chemotherapy that attacks the entire body as well as the cancerous tumor.

Chemoembolization delivers a highly concentrated dose of chemotherapy drugs injected directly into the organ while blocking, or embolizing, the hepatic artery feeding the tumor with blood and nutrients. Embolizing the arteries starve the tumor of its blood supply, shrink, and in some instances, destroy it.

Chemoembolization can be used to treat liver cancer in combination with systemic chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and radiofrequency ablation treatments. These other treatments can be used to treat cancer in other parts of the body while doctors can “utilize chemoembolization to control cancer in the liver,” according to Iyad Hamarneh, MD, Oncologist, Arizona Oncology Associates in Prescott Valley.

An example is a patient who has colon cancer that has spread to the liver. This patient has already undergone surgery and chemotherapy.

“Chemoembolization provides another, less invasive option to control their disease that has less morbidity and less mortality and potentially could help control cancer,” said Dr. Hamarneh.

Consult a Vascular and Interventional Radiology Expert

Dr. Hamarneh believes it is important that our community can provide top-notch cancer treatment because the financial burden of cancer and the time it takes to treat cancer can be considerable.

“It is important to give these patients the normal quality of life as possible and receiving treatment close to home is an important part of this process,” Dr. Hamarneh said.

Dr. Paxton agrees. “It is important to provide this treatment locally in our community so that people don’t have to travel to receive it. They can spend more time in the comfort of their homes and with their families, and more time with their local doctors.”

According to Dr. Paxton’s partner, Interventional Radiologist Matthew Dicker, MD, “We work closely with oncologists and their patients to provide minimally invasive options to diagnose and treat or aid in the treatment of cancers.”

Dr. Hamarneh looks forward to working closely with interventional radiologists who perform chemoembolization in the quad-cities area and indicates that it is great and important that we can provide these options to our patients here locally.

“The decision to perform chemoembolization is a complex one that requires close collaboration between the oncologist and interventional radiologist as it may not be the right choice for every patient with primary or secondary liver cancer,” said Dr. Hamarneh.

For more information about chemoembolization, as well as image-guided biopsies, placing long-term IV access for chemotherapy, and other cancer treatment options that interventional radiologists perform, please contact Vascular and Interventional Specialists (VISP) at (928) 771-8477.