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What is the Difference Between Chemoembolization and Traditional Chemotherapy

Immense progress has been made in treating cancer and its symptoms. At IVC, we are proud to offer the newest developments in cancer treatment to improve our patients’ health and quality of life. Our medical experts specialize in interventional oncology, a rapidly growing field that utilizes minimally invasive techniques to diagnose and treat cancer. Chemoembolization is among the most promising emerging treatments that allow us to provide the best possible care for our patients.

What Is Interventional Oncology?

Oncology has traditionally consisted of three primary pillars: medical treatment, radiation treatment and surgical treatment. In recent years, interventional oncology has become the fourth core pillar of a multidisciplinary approach to cancer care. The goal of interventional oncology is to reduce or eliminate the need for invasive surgery, as well as the excessive downtime and pain that frequently accompanies it. This subspeciality allows for the treatment of tumors that are not accessible by other means and for patients who are not candidates for different types of treatment. Many oncologic treatment plans combine interventional techniques with other therapies to provide the most comprehensive approach to cancer care.

What Is Chemoembolization?

Chemoembolization is a method used in interventional oncology in which chemotherapy drugs are delivered directly into the blood vessel feeding a cancerous tumor. A synthetic material called an embolic agent is also placed inside the blood vessel to ensure the chemotherapy agent remains within the tumor. This accomplishes several treatment goals:

  • The tumor is deprived of oxygen and essential nutrients because the embolic agent blocks the blood supply
  • The chemotherapy dose is higher than what can safely be given via IV because it is injected directly into the tumor
  • The chemotherapy agent stays in the tumor for an extended period of time because the blocked vessel prevents blood from washing through the tumor

How Does Chemoembolization Work?

The liver has two sources of blood. One, the portal vein, is responsible for delivering the majority of the liver’s blood supply. The other, the hepatic artery, carries only a small percentage of the liver’s blood supply. A tumor in the liver receives almost all of its blood supply from the hepatic artery. Therefore, when chemotherapy drugs are injected into the hepatic artery during chemoembolization, they travel directly to the tumor while sparing most of the surrounding healthy tissue. The hepatic artery is blocked and the liver continues to be supplied by blood from the portal vein.

What Is the Difference Between Chemoembolization and Traditional Chemotherapy?

While traditional chemotherapy can successfully treat malignant tumors in the liver, it is not the most effective or appropriate approach for every patient. Chemoembolization is a localized treatment, meaning it affects only a specific area or organ. Traditional chemotherapy is a systemic treatment, meaning it affects the entire body. Chemoembolization targets cancer at its source, maximizing the effectiveness of the drugs while minimizing harm to healthy cells and reducing side effects for the patient. Chemoembolization also uses a higher concentration of medication than traditional systemic chemotherapy and keeps it in contact with the tumor longer.

What Kind of Cancer Can Chemoembolization Treat?

Chemoembolization is used specifically to treat cancer originating in the liver or cancer that has migrated (metastasized) to the liver from elsewhere in the body. It has little to no effect on any other cancer. The following liver cancers can be treated with chemoembolization:

  • Hepatocellular Carcinoma (the most common type of primary liver cancer)
  • Metastatic to the liver from:
    • Colon cancer
    • Carcinoid (a slow-growing cancer that usually begins in the digestive tract or lungs)
    • Ocular melanoma (a cancer that develops in the cells that produce melanin in the eye)
    • Sarcoma (a group of cancers that begin in the bones and soft tissues)
    • A primary tumor in another part of the body

Am I a Good Candidate for Chemoembolization?

Confirming you are a candidate for chemoembolization requires an accurate assessment of your cancer by an interventional radiologist. In general, patients may be considered for chemoembolization if they have not responded to traditional chemotherapy or radiation, cannot receive more radiation, are not candidates for standard therapy and/or require relief from their cancer symptoms.

Your interventional radiologist may recommend that you undergo several tests of your liver prior to the chemoembolization procedure. These tests are necessary to rule out conditions that would prevent the use of chemoembolization, such as blockage of the portal vein, blockage of the bile ducts or cirrhosis of the liver.

How Is Chemoembolization Performed?

Chemoembolization is a minimally invasive procedure. Your doctor begins the treatment by inserting a catheter through your wrist or your groin and directing it to the artery that supplies blood and nutrients to your liver tumor. A dye is injected so the tumor and blood vessels can be visualized on an x-ray. This allows your doctor to determine the condition of your portal vein and assess blood supply to the tumor before injecting the chemoembolization mixture through the catheter. After the chemotherapy treatment is administered, the catheter is withdrawn and its entry point is dressed. You will relocate to a recovery room where you will receive IV fluids and anti-nausea or pain medications if needed. Most patients return home after an overnight stay.

What Is Recovery Like After Chemoembolization?

Following the procedure, you may experience pain, fever and nausea. These symptoms can be addressed with medications and resolve within a few hours or days. Fatigue and loss of appetite are also common. Patients typically feel ready to resume normal activities within a week after chemoembolization. Your interventional radiologist will monitor your recovery and the success of the procedure with follow-up visits. Additional chemoembolization treatments may be necessary.

IVC: Portland’s Chemoembolization Experts

If you have been diagnosed with liver cancer, visit IVC to learn how chemoembolization or another minimally invasive treatment can help you. Our mission is to offer effective cancer treatments that minimize pain and downtime and maximize your quality of life. Our medical team can craft an individualized treatment plan that incorporates the latest advancements in interventional oncology to complement and enhance your comprehensive cancer care. Call us today at 503-612-0498 to schedule a consultation.

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We are announcing that Interventional and Vascular Consultants will be closing as of March 10, 2023.

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Please know that we have greatly valued our relationship with you and wish you the best.


Jason Bauer, MD RVT
Michael Pfister, MD RVT

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