BACKGROUND: Liver cancer begins in the cells of the liver -- the football-sized organ that sits in the upper right portion of the abdomen, beneath the diaphragm and above the stomach. It is one of the most common cancers in the world, and rates of liver cancer are increasing in the U.S. According to the National Cancer Institute, in just the first eight months of 2009, more than 22,000 people in the U.S. had been diagnosed with liver cancer and more than 18,000 people died from it. Typically, most cancer that occurs in the liver begins in another area of the body, such as the colon, lung or breast.
SYMPTOMS: Possible signs of adult primary liver cancer include a lump or pain on the right side, caused by swelling of the liver. Other symptoms include a hard lump on the right side just below the rib cage, discomfort in the upper abdomen on the right side, pain around the right shoulder blade, unexplained weight loss, jaundice, unusual tiredness, nausea and loss of appetite.
TREATMENT: Many times liver tumors are too large to operate on or treat with chemotherapy. A new treatment called radioembolization takes advantage of your body's anatomy to deliver a large dose of radiation to the tumor and minimal amounts to those areas not affected. The radioactive particles are about the size of talcum powder particles and are delivered to the tumor through a catheter inserted in the groin. The small tube is threaded up to the liver. The radiation is in the form of beta particles, which travel about 2 millimeters through the tissues and do not cause any significant radiation outside the patient's body.
The outpatient procedure takes about an hour and patients are given a local anesthetic. It is a powerful treatment and can make a patient sick for a couple days or weeks. Patients may be candidates for radioembolization if they are not a candidate for liver transplantation, surgery or chemotherapy.
The prognosis for primary liver cancer is usually poor when surgery is not an option. For these patients, radioembolization is typically used as a palliative therapy to improve quality of life, improve length of survival, and in some cases, it may be chosen as a therapy to shrink a tumor in order to prepare a patient for a curative liver transplant. In some rare cases, however, the radioembolization itself is enough to kill the liver tumor.