What is Liver Cancer?

The liver is an organ which acts as a filter for all of the blood circulating through the human body.  Because of this, it is unusually susceptible to cancer cells that may travel through the bloodstream, resulting in the majority of liver cancers, which are metastatic, meaning the cancer started in a different part of the body.  A smaller percentage of liver cancer is primary – a cancer that started in the cells of the liver.  The most common form of primary liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma which starts in the main type of liver cell.  Other types of primary liver cancer are determined based on the kind of cells that have become cancerous, such as cholangiocarcinoma (bile ducts), or angiosarcoma (blood vessels).

Various risk factors can increase the chances of a person developing liver cancer.  These include gender, cirrhosis (most commonly caused by chronic hepatitis B or C infections, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, or alcoholism), inherited liver diseases (such as hemochromatosis), diabetes, and consuming foods that have been contaminated with fungi that produce aflatoxins.  Age is also a risk factor with older adults (50 and over) most commonly affected in North America, Europe and Australia, while developing countries tend to see liver cancer diagnosis at a younger age.

As is the case with many cancers, people in the early stages of primary liver cancer generally don’t exhibit any symptoms of the disease.  As the cancer grows, the signs may include:

• Loss of appetite

• Loss of weight (without trying)

• Nausea and vomiting

• Upper abdominal pain

• General weakness and fatigue

• Abdominal swelling

• Enlarged liver

• Jaundice – yellow discoloration of the skin and whites of the eyes

• White, chalky stools

Of course, eliminating the cancer entirely is the primary goal of any treatment.  In a situation where that is not possible, tumor growth prevention or stopping the spread of the disease may be the focus.  Options for treating liver cancer may include:

• Surgery – either to remove the cancerous portion of the liver or a complete liver transplant

• Cryoablation – freezing of the cancer cells using liquid nitrogen

• Radiofrequency ablation – heating the cancer cells using an electric current

• Alcohol injection into the cancerous tumors

• Chemotherapy

• Radiation therapy

• Targeted drug therapy

The stage of the disease, the patient’s age and overall health as well as personal preferences are all considered factors when identifying the best treatment. For more information please click here.