Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells. It may be an option for some people who cannot have surgery. Sometimes radiation is used with other treatments. Radiation therapy also may be used to help relieve pain from liver cancer that has spread to the bones.
Radiation therapy is similar to getting an x-ray, but the radiation is more intense. The procedure itself is painless. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – usually takes longer. Most often, radiation treatments are given 5 days a week for several weeks. With newer radiation techniques, doctors can more accurately target liver tumors while reducing the radiation exposure to nearby healthy tissues.
Two Types of Radiation to Treat Liver Cancer
External Radiation Therapy
Beams of radiation are aimed externally at the chest and abdomen (belly). This type of radiation therapy can sometimes be used to shrink liver tumors to reduce pain, but it is not used as often as ablation or embolization. The radiation doses should not be too high, otherwise healthy liver tissue could be damaged.
Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT)
This is a type of external beam radiation therapy that uses special computers to precisely locate the tumor(s). Radiation beams are conformed (shaped) and aimed at the tumor(s) from different directions, which reduces the damage to healthy liver tissue. Most doctors now recommend using 3D-CRT when it is available.
Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT)
This procedure uses very focused beams of high-dose radiation given on one or more days (instead of using small doses of radiation each day for several weeks). Several beams are aimed at the tumor from different angles. To target the radiation precisely, the person is put in a specially designed body frame for each treatment.
Internal Radiation Therapy
Tiny radioactive beads are injected into the hepatic artery using a special catheter. The beads then destroy the blood supply to the liver cancer tumor(s).
Side Effects of Radiation Therapy
The side effects of radiation therapy include nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Radiation can cause sunburn-like skin problems where the radiation enters the body. Sometimes radiation can make the side effects of chemotherapy worse.