From 1976 to 1983, 28 patients (24 male and four female) with unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) were treated by intraarterial chemotherapy at the Istituto Nazionale Tumori of Milan, Milan, Italy. Tumors were retrospectively classified by a previously proposed staging system. Two patients were classified as Stage I and 26 as Stage II. Liver cirrhosis was present only in the males (in 50% of them). Nineteen patients were treated with doxorubicin (Adriamycin [Adria Laboratories, Columbus, OH]) and nine with 5-fluorouracil. Systemic toxicity was mild, but the treatment induced hepatic toxicity (ascites, clinical jaundice, or biochemical impairment) in 18% of noncirrhotic and 66% of cirrhotic patients. Clinical reduction of hepatomegaly was observed in 50% of noncirrhotic versus 16% of cirrhotic patients. Doxorubicin was effective in 66% of noncirrhotic patients and 20% of cirrhotic patients, with an overall response rate of 42%. 5-fluorouracil was effective only in patients without cirrhosis, with an overall response rate of 22%. Overall median actuarial survival was 3.5 months, with a significant difference between noncirrhotic and cirrhotic patients (6 versus 2 months, respectively). Overall median survival of patients who responded to the treatment was 13 versus 2 months for nonresponders (P less than 0.001). Liver cirrhosis was the most important prognostic factor in terms of liver toxicity, response rate, and survival. This study emphasized the negative impact of the treatment on cirrhotic patients. Also, the real value of intraarterial administration of doxorubicin was investigated.