Chemotherapy may contribute to liver damage. If you have cirrhosis or other liver problems, your doctor might consider other cancer treatments.

Your liver filters potentially harmful substances from your body. When you take medication, for example, your liver gradually removes it from your bloodstream.

Some types of medication — including chemotherapy drugs — can damage your liver. If you already have liver damage, your liver might not be strong enough to process chemotherapy drugs.

Keep reading to learn more about how chemotherapy affects the liver and how cirrhosis affects your cancer treatment options and outlook.

Your liver plays an important role in processing drugs and removing them from your body. But chemotherapy can be especially hard on your liver.

Chemotherapy is designed to kill fast-growing cells. But it kills both cancerous and noncancerous cells, resulting in powerful side effects.

In the liver, it can destroy cells and structures, making it more difficult for the liver to do its job. Liver-related complications of chemotherapy include:

Chemotherapy can also weaken your immune system, increasing your risk of hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Can you have chemotherapy if you have cirrhosis or liver damage?

There are many factors to consider when undergoing chemotherapy. One factor is your liver health.

Before recommending chemotherapy, cancer specialists (oncologists) typically run tests to assess how well your liver is functioning. If you have liver damage, they might modify the standard treatment to make it easier on your liver or recommend another treatment altogether.

You might still be able to have chemotherapy. Your oncologist will help you understand the risks and monitor your liver function during the treatment.

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Cirrhosis is a complication of liver disease. It means that the liver is scarred and cannot function properly. Unlike some other liver problems, it’s irreversible.

Chemotherapy is one of many cancer treatments. But it’s not the only cancer treatment that’s hard on the liver. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, radiation, immunotherapy, and stem cell transplants are all potentially harmful to your liver.

Your oncologist will consider your liver health when making treatment recommendations. Having cirrhosis could limit your choice of treatment.

Research exploring chemotherapy outcomes for people with both cancer and cirrhosis is limited. There are many factors to consider, including the type of cancer and the stage of both cancer and liver disease.

A small 2020 study compared chemotherapy outcomes between 10 people with both cirrhosis and lymphoma (the case group) and 20 people with just lymphoma (the control group). Although survival following treatment was slightly longer in the control group, the difference wasn’t statistically significant.

The authors suggest that chemotherapy might be a suitable treatment for people with cirrhosis. But they also stress that more clinical trials are needed.

If you have a higher risk of liver damage or cirrhosis, your healthcare team will keep an eye on your liver function throughout chemotherapy. They might modify your dose or even stop your treatment.

To protect your liver health while undergoing chemotherapy, try to stay hydrated by sipping small amounts of water throughout the day. If possible, opt for a liver-friendly diet, including high protein foods.

If your doctor has prescribed medication, take it as directed.

Finally, ask your doctor before consuming alcohol or taking additional herbs, supplements, or over-the-counter drugs.

You can also watch out for signs of a liver problem, including:

You can learn more about cancer and chemotherapy risks by talking with a healthcare professional.

Can liver damage from chemotherapy be reversed?

Liver damage caused by chemotherapy is often reversible. However, it depends on the chemotherapy drug used.

What percentage of people with cirrhosis get liver cancer?

If you have cirrhosis, you do have an increased risk of developing liver cancer. According to a 2017 study from the United Kingdom, about 4% of people with cirrhosis will develop liver cancer within 10 years.

What is the life expectancy for people with liver cancer and cirrhosis?

According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year relative survival rate for liver cancer in the United States is 21%. Having cirrhosis can reduce life expectancy for people with liver cancer.

Because chemo can damage your liver, your doctor may not recommend chemotherapy if you already have serious liver damage.

If you have cancer, your oncologist will run tests to learn more about your liver health. It may be possible to undergo chemotherapy or other cancer treatments even if you have liver problems.