The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has recently approved radiofrequency ablation, a new treatment strategy for patients with inoperable liver cancer. This new treatment has shown to improve survival rates and quality of life in selected patients with liver cancer who are unable to undergo surgical removal of the cancer.
The liver is the largest organ in the body and is responsible for over 500 functions, including the secretion of glucose, proteins, vitamins and fats, the production of bile, the processing of hemoglobin and the detoxification of numerous substances. Primary liver cancer, sometimes called hepatocellular cancer or cholangiocarcinoma starts in cells of the liver and can spread, through blood or lymph vessels, to different parts of the body. Commonly, people with liver cancer already suffer from another disease that causes damage to the liver. The treatment of liver cancer depends on the size, and specific stage (extent of disease) of the cancer. Currently, the only curative treatment option for liver cancer is surgical resection (removal of the cancer). However, only a small percentage of patients are eligible for surgery because the majority of patients have cancer that has replaced too much of the liver or spread outside the liver to other parts of the body. Now, radiofrequency ablation is offering hope for a new way to treat persons with inoperable liver cancer.
Radiofrequency ablation entails the use of an electric current that is passed into a target area (tumors of the liver) through a needle probe. Heat is generated by the electric current at the site of the tumor, which ultimately destroys cancer cells. The procedure works as follows: conventional imaging methods, such as ultrasound, a computerized tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are utilized to guide the physician in the placement of the needle probe into the cancer. An electrical current is then generated and passed through the probe directly into the cancer cells. These cancer cells are heated by the electrical current to the point of irreversible ablation (destruction).
In a large multicenter clinical study, radiofrequency ablation was used to treat over 120 patients with inoperable liver cancer. Almost two years after treatment, less than 2% of patients experience a return of their cancer. Complications from this procedure were infrequent, occurring in approximately 2% of patients. Overall, the quality of life for these patients was improved following this procedure.
These results are very encouraging for patients with liver cancer. Patients with liver cancer may wish to speak with their physician about the use of radiofrequency ablation or about the participation in clinical trials utilizing other promising new treatments.
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