Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that is used to destroy cancer cells. The American Cancer Society states that more than 100 different drugs may be used as part of a chemotherapy regimen. The medications are delivered intravenously or taken orally. The drugs used to kill cancerous cells are so powerful they sometimes damage healthy cells as well. Liver damage is a common side effect of chemo, as the chemo medications are broken down by the liver. Chemo's effects on the liver include elevated levels of liver enzymes, higher-than-normal readings of bilirubin, and damage to the organ itself.
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Elevated Liver Enzymes
Chemotherapy may cause liver enzymes in the blood to rise. This change in enzyme production usually points to liver damage, but can sometimes measure high even if the liver is functioning properly. Liver enzymes are a type of protein that are produced by the organ. The enzymes help maintain vital functions such as the processing of toxins and the regulation of blood glucose levels. People who are undergoing treatment for cancer and have high liver enzyme levels may feel very tired or bleed easily.
Elevated Bilirubin Levels
People who have had chemo may develop jaundice as a result of high bilirubin levels. Bilirubin is a by-product from red blood cells. The liver uses bilirubin to make bile, and then the bilirubin is eliminated from the body through the normal process of excretion. When the liver becomes infected or otherwise does not function properly, bilirubin builds up and is not eliminated from the body as efficiently. The increase in bilirubin levels causes a person's skin and whites of the eyes to appear yellowish in color. Depending on the extent of the jaundice and how the cancer patient's body is responding to chemo, doctors may choose to adjust anti-cancer drugs to put a stop to the increase in bilirubin.
In addition to affecting levels of substances in the blood that help the liver do its job, chemo may damage the liver itself and limit its ability to function properly. Liver damage that stems from an underlying medical condition is called hepatotoxicity. People with this condition may develop jaundice, experience water retention and have bleeding problems. Abdominal pain and fatigue may also be symptoms of chemo-induced liver damage. The compromised state of the liver may be reversible once the round of chemo has been completed, or the damage may be permanent.