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Combo Treatment for Liver Cancer Is Effective

High-Tech Approach Zaps Liver Tumors and Works as Well as Surgery
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WebMD Health News

March 30, 2004 (Phoenix) --This year about 18,000 Americans will be diagnosed with liver cancer and most of them -- 14,000 -- will die of the disease. But researchers say that a combination of techniques can help some people with this cancer live longer.

Ann Covey, MD, an assistant professor at Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center in New York, tells WebMD that her center is combining techniques called bland or mechanical embolization, which blocks the blood supply to cancers and radiofrequency ablation, which uses radiation to burn away tumors, to treat people with liver cancer. She says the combination technique works equally as well as surgery yet it offers an easier and faster recovery.

Embolization requires inserting a tiny catheter in an artery in the groin that is then guided into the liver and the actual tumor. Once in the tumor, the catheter releases tiny pellets into the blood vessel that feeds the tumor. The pellets act like plugs that block the blood vessel.

In radiofrequency ablation a needle is guided from the skin into the tumor. Once in the tumor, the needle releases an "umbrella" of wires that treats the tumor with radiofrequency energy heat. The technique allows heat to be precisely directed at cancerous liver cells and leaves healthy cells alone.

"Surprisingly, we discovered that this nonsurgical approach appears to be work as well as surgery," Covey says. That's especially good news because "only about 15% to 20% of patients are good candidates for surgery, so this means that we have an option to offer these patients."

Liver Cancer Up in U.S.

While liver cancer has long been a major health problem in Asia, the American Cancer Society says that it is now one of the few cancers actually on the increase in the United States. Many experts suggest the increase is caused by an increase in cases of hepatitis C, a viral infection of the liver that can remain silent or dormant for many years before causing liver disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 3.9 million Americans have been infected with hepatitis C and 2.7 million of them are chronically infected. As hepatitis C progresses the liver becomes hard and scarred. Unable to maintain normal function, because of progressive scarring or cirrhosis, many people will require liver transplant.

Yet one of the most serious complications of chronic hepatitis C infection is liver cancer, also called hepatocellular carcinoma. Surgery can be done in only a few people in the hopes of curing liver cancer, yet because many people with this cancer have other medical conditions surgery can be risky.

In the study, presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Interventional Radiology, 33 people all with a solitary liver cancer mass were treated with the combination of noninvasive technique. They were compared with 40 other victims of liver cancer who had their tumors removed by surgery.

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