First hearing the words "you have liver cancer", can be a life altering experience and can start a cascade of emotions. By spending time researching treatment options for either yourself or a loved one, you are ensuring you will be receiving the best care available today based on individual needs. This section contains general information about liver cancer.
Liver cancer is a disease in which liver cells become "malignant," that is, they become abnormal and grow uncontrollably, forming a tumor. When the cancer originates in the liver it is called "primary" liver cancer. This differs from “secondary” liver cancer, in which tumors in other organs such as the colon, rectum, breast, head or neck have spread to the liver. These liver tumors are also known as liver metasteses.
The most common form of primary liver cancer is called hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).
Primary or secondary liver cancer can form large, hard-to-remove tumors that have spread widely throughout the liver by the time the condition is diagnosed. In addition, the liver can be very damaged by both the cancer and underlying infections or other conditions that contributed to the cancer. This makes some forms of primary or secondary liver cancer unsuitable for treatment with surgery and hence, unresectable.
The liver is one of the largest and active organs in the body. Located in the upper right side of the abdomen under the rib cage, the liver performs numerous vital functions. The liver plays an important role in food digestion, synthesis and storage of energy-rich carbohydrates, as well as the production of numerous proteins, lipids, and hormones. The liver also filters and stores blood and breaks down medicines as well as potentially toxic substances. Thus, the liver plays many vital roles in the body's response to various nutritional and physiological needs and challenges. Liver cancer can interfere with the liver’s ability to perform its many important actions. This has numerous effects on the body, producing symptoms that are related to a lack of normal liver function.
The first symptoms of liver cancer, as with other types of cancer, are often vague. A person may feel poorly, lose his or her appetite, experience weight loss, fever, weakness and a general feeling of being rundown.
Over time, the person may feel a pain in the upper abdomen on the right side that may radiate to the back and shoulder. One may also notice a lump in the upper abdomen and suffer feelings of fullness and bloating.
As liver function becomes more impaired the person may have bouts of fever and nausea/vomiting and develop jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes) and dark urine.
These symptoms can be experienced separately or together; however, a person who experiences these symptoms may not have liver cancer, since these same symptoms can be caused by a benign (non-cancerous) liver tumor or by other medical conditions. Therefore, a doctor should be consulted to determine the exact cause of these symptoms.
As with all cancer types, HCC develops when normal cells mutate into cancerous cells that grow and act in an abnormal manner. Unlike most cancers, the cause of HCC can often be identified in individual patients. Chronic infections of hepatitis B or C cause continual damage to the liver and have been shown to be risk factors for HCC. This repeated damage to the liver can cause scarring called cirrhosis which can ultimately lead to the development of HCC. Cirrhosis can also be caused by alcohol abuse.
Additional and more rare causes of HCC include autoimmune diseases such as biliary cirrhosis (damage to the bile ducts that causes bile to build up within the liver which results in liver damage and cirrhosis) and autoimmune hepatitis, where the immune system attacks normal liver tissue causing damage.
The diagnosis of liver cancer begins much like the diagnosis of any disease. First, the doctor records a medical history, then does a physical examination. Based on the findings from that history and examination the doctor then orders certain tests to help with diagnosis: