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Embolization is the process of cutting off the blood supply to a tumor. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients that the tumor cells need to live and multiply. Cut off from that source, the cells eventually die.
Embolization may serve as an alternative to surgery for large tumors up to five centimeters, or about two inches, across. It may even be more appropriate than surgery for some patients as embolization can help control bleeding better than surgery. Embolization may also be used after surgery to help reduce bleeding.
Doctors are experimenting with new embolization techniques to test their effectiveness in treating liver cancer. For instance, radioembolization, where radioactive beads are inserted into the hepatic artery, is being used in some treatment centers but studies are still being done to determine its effectiveness at shrinking liver tumors.
For this procedure, also known as transarterial embolization (or TAE), your doctor inserts small beads, sometimes called microspheres, to block the flow of blood to the hepatic artery. In this procedure, your doctor inserts a catheter, or small tube, into an artery, typically through your inner thigh. He or she may also inject a special dye in the catheter so that the catheter can be easily seen on an x-ray, which may be used to guide the catheter into place. Once it is in the right position, the microspheres are injected into the catheter and through it to the tumor.
Healthy liver cells continue to receive blood through the hepatic portal vein, the other major artery that feeds into the liver. But since embolization does cut off a major source of blood to the liver, it may not be appropriate for people with advanced cirrhosis, hepatitis, or another condition that compromises the ability of their other liver cells to function properly.
Chemoembolization, alternatively called transcatheter arterial chemoembolization (TACE), was developed as an alternative to systemic chemotherapy and is a newer liver cancer treatment. In this procedure, a chemotherapy drug is inserted along with embolic materials through the hepatic artery into the liver. This enables the chemotherapy drugs to target the liver, as opposed to the whole body, and the embolization stops blood flow to the tumor.
For this procedure, your doctor inserts a small catheter into an artery in your leg. Using an x-ray as a guide, he or she moves the catheter into the hepatic artery before injecting an anti-cancer drug into the artery. Then, your doctor blocks the flow of blood through the artery by inserting microspheres through the catheter, which enables the drug to stay in the liver longer and cuts off the tumor’s supply of oxygen and nutrients. Depending on the type of particles used, the blockage may be temporary or permanent.
Although the hepatic artery is blocked, your healthy liver tissue continues to receive blood from the hepatic portal vein, which carries blood from the stomach to the intestine.
Chemoembolization requires a hospital stay.
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