About Liver Cancer

The liver is the largest organ in the body. It is located in the right upper part of the abdomen just under the diaphragm.

The liver has hundreds of metabolic and regulatory functions, including the following:

  • Producing bile to break down fats in the diet
  • Absorbing fat and some vitamins
  • Storing fats, sugar, iron and vitamins for later use
  • Making proteins used in blood clotting
  • Removing or altering substances that are harmful to the body, such as alcohol

Cancer occurs when abnormal cells reproduce uncontrollably. Cancer that begins in the liver is called primary liver cancer. Primary liver cancer that is not detected in an early stage can possibly spread to other organs. In the United States, primary liver cancer is relatively uncommon.

Most liver cancer does not actually originate in the liver; it spreads to the liver from a cancer elsewhere in the body. When this happens, the disease is not considered primary liver cancer. The cancer is referred to by the name of its original site and as metastatic, meaning it has spread. For example, a person can have metastatic colon cancer which has spread to the liver. Cancer in the liver that did not originate there is also called secondary liver cancer.

Facts About Liver Cancer

Following are some facts about liver cancer:

  • The National Cancer Institute estimates that in 2012, more than 21,000 men and 7,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with primary liver cancer. Most will be over 64 years old.
  • Primary liver cancer is twice as common in men as in women.
  • Many cancers in other parts of the body can spread to the liver because of its role in filtering the blood. Colorectal cancer is the most common form of cancer to metastasize to the liver.
  • In contrast to many other types of cancer, the number of people in the United States who get primary liver cancer and die from it is increasing.
  • Asian Americans have the highest rate of primary liver cancer in the United States; African Americans and Hispanic Americans also have higher rates than do Caucasians.

Risk Factors and Symptoms

Risk Factors for Liver Cancer

No one yet knows the exact causes of primary liver cancer. However, the following risk factors can make you more likely to develop it:

  • Being male
  • Being Asian American
  • Chronic liver infection, particularly with Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C
  • Cirrhosis
  • Family history of liver cancer
  • Over age 60
  • Tobacco use
  • Use of anabolic steriods

Having another type of cancer is a considerable risk factor for secondary liver cancer.

Reducing the Risk

Worldwide, the most significant risk factor for liver cancer is infection with Hepatitis B or C. Children and high risk adults should get the Hepatitis B vaccine. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for Hepatitis C.

To avoid contracting Hepatitis C, which can lead to liver cancer, adhere to the following:

  • Be cautious about blood products in certain countries
  • Avoid body piercing and tattooing
  • Do not engage in unprotected sex with someone who has Hepatitis or who’s health status is unknown to you
  • Do not inject drugs or always use clean needles

If you have risk factors for Hepatitis C, consider getting tested for the disease. Hepatitis C often has no symptoms.

Following are additional measures you can take to reduce the risk of liver cancer:

  • Stop smoking
  • Drink only in moderation to prevent cirrhosis and the progression of existing liver cancer
  • Avoid medications that may cause liver damage (such as mixing acetominophen and alcohol; consult your physician for additional medications you should avoid)
  • Avoid exposure to environmental toxins

Symptoms of Liver Cancer

Liver cancer usually doesn’t cause symptoms until its later stages; consequently, it’s seldom found early.

Following are some symptoms of liver cancer:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Ongoing lack of appetite
  • Feeling very full after a small meal
  • Ongoing stomach pain
  • Swelling in the area of the stomach
  • Jaundice (yellow discoloration of the skin or whites of the eyes)
  • Becoming sicker if you have chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis

These symptoms may be caused by other illnesses also. If you have any of these symptoms, consult your primary care physician to determine the cause.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing Liver Cancer

CT scans, MRIs, ultrasound and angiograms may all be used to see an image of the liver that will enable a radiologist to identify tumors.

If liver cancer is suspected, your physician may also order a liver biopsy, where a needle is inserted into the liver using a CT scanner or ultrasound for guidance to remove a small amount of tissue for examination.

Treating this Condition

Surgical removal of liver tumors offers the best chances of a cure. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the tumors are inoperable for more than two-thirds of patients with primary liver cancer and 90% of patients with secondary liver cancer.

Radiology procedures offer non-surgical ways to shrink tumors and reduce pain. Various imaging techniques are used to guide catheters to the site of the tumors, where heat, microwave energy, freezing, radiation or chemotherapy drugs can be applied directly to the tumor site. This is done through radiofrequency ablation, Yttrium-90 microsphere radioembolization, or chemoembolization. In rare instances, using these treatments on smaller tumors can cure the liver cancer. In most instances these procedures reduce symptoms and lengthen patients’ lives.

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