Because the liver is the largest organ in the body, getting liver cancer can have very serious effects on your health. That’s why it’s so important to understand and recognize the primary signs and symptoms of this particular type of cancer and how to treat it.
Liver cancer is a type of cancer that originates in the cells of the liver. The liver is located in the upper right area of the abdomen, above the stomach and below the diaphragm. It is quite large – an adult liver is about the size of a football.
Liver cancer is not uncommon in the U.S., but the rates of diagnosis in this country are slowly increasing. However, in other parts of the world, liver cancer is one of the most common types of cancer.
Any cancer that originates in the liver is liver cancer. However, there are a variety of cancerous tumors that may form in the liver based on what type of liver cells they develop from. The following are the types of cancer which may originate in the liver:
- Hepatocellular carcinoma: Also known as HCC, hepatocellular carcinoma is a type of liver cancer which begins in the hepatocytes, which are the main type of liver cell. This type of cancer accounts for about 75 percent of cases of liver cancers, says the American Cancer Society. HCC can start as one single tumor or several smaller cancerous spots throughout the liver. The latter is more common than the former and is most often associated with cirrhosis.
- Bile duct cancer: This is a type of liver cancer that begins in the bile ducts, which are small tubes which carry bile to the gallbladder. This kind of cancer accounts for about 10 to 20 percent of cases of liver cancer.
- Hepatoblastoma: This is type of liver cancer that usually occurs in children who are under the age of 4. It is very rare and is usually accompanied by a good prognosis, particularly when it is diagnosed early on in the development of the disease.
- Angiosarcomas and hemangiosarcomas: These are types of liver cancers that begin in the blood vessels in the liver. They are not as common as some of the other types of liver cancer, but they are very dangerous. These tumors grow so quickly that they are often too widespread to be removed once they are diagnosed.
Cancer may also develop in the liver if it originates in another part of the body –such as the lung or breast – and then spreads to the liver. This is not referred to as liver cancer. Instead, it is called metastatic cancer. Metastatic cancer in the liver is more common than cancer which originated in the liver.
Because the signs of liver cancer are somewhat vague and can easily be mistaken for other health conditions, many people are not diagnosed with the disease in its early stages. Be sure to see a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms of liver cancer:
- Loss of appetite
- Unintentional weight loss
- Pain in the upper abdomen
- Abdominal swelling
- An enlarged liver
- White, chalky stools
- Jaundice (yellowish color of the skin and eyes)
Causes and Risk Factors
Liver cancer develops as a result of mutations in the DNA of the cells in the liver. This allows the affected cells to grow uncontrollably and live much longer than normal cells do, leading to a mass of cancerous cells called a tumor.
There are certain factors which may increase a person’s likelihood of developing liver cancer, including:
- Age: In North America, Europe and Australia, the risk for live cancer increases as a person reaches old age. However, in Asia and Africa, liver cancer usually occurs in individuals between the ages of 20-50.
- Sex: Men are more likely to get liver cancer than women are.
- Having certain health conditions: Liver cancer is more likely to occur in individuals who have one or more of the following health problems: cirrhosis, obesity, liver disease, chronic infections with HBV or HCV and diabetes.
Though there is no proven way to prevent liver cancer completely, you can significantly reduce your risk for the disease by taking the following advice:
- Drink alcohol in moderation
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Get vaccinated for hepatitis B
- Prevent your exposure to hepatitis C
- Be careful when handling or being around chemicals
- If you are in a high-risk category, ask your doctor about liver cancer screenings
There are a variety of treatment options for liver cancer, including:
- Surgery: The tumor and/or a portion of the liver may be removed to get rid of the cancer.
- Liver transplant: Diseased livers can be replaced with a healthy liver from a donor. This is usually reserved for those in the early stages of liver cancer.
- Freezing or heating cancer cells: Extreme cold or heat can be applied to destroy cancer cells in the liver.
- Alcohol injection: An injection of pure alcohol can be applied to the tumor to kill cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy involves the use or oral or intravenous drugs to kill cancer cells. With liver disease, this is sometimes accomplished with an injection of chemotherapy drugs directly into the liver.
- Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy involves the use of high-energy beams to kill cancer cells. This may lead to side effects like nausea, vomiting and fatigue.