Liver Cancer

The liver is the largest organ in the body. It performs many important functions, including breaking down and storing nutrients; secreting bile into the gallbladder to help in nutrient absorption; and removing toxic waste. It also makes clotting factors that keep cuts or injuries from bleeding excessively. One of the world‘s most common cancers, most cases are found in developing countries in Africa and East Asia. Men are more likely than women to be diagnosed with liver cancer.

Because there are many different types of cells in the liver, different types of tumors can form there; they can be benign or malignant. Hemangiomas and hepatic adenomas are examples of benign liver tumors, while hepatocellular carcinoma, angiosarcoma and hemangiosarcoma are examples of malignant ones. Cancers that migrate to the liver from other organs are called liver metastases.

Risk Factors for Liver Cancer

Although the specific cause of liver cancer is unknown, it is believed that cancer develops when the DNA of liver cells changes, causing the cells to grow uncontrollably, eventually forming a tumor. There are certain factors that may increase the risk of developing liver cancer. Some of these factors include the following:

  • Being male
  • Being age 60 and older
  • Having chronic viral hepatitis
  • Having cirrhosis
  • Having Type 2 diabetes
  • Consuming excessive amounts of alcohol
  • Being obese

Signs or Symptoms of Liver Cancer

Patients with liver cancer usually do not experience any symptoms during its early stages. However, as the disease progresses, symptoms may include the following:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Jaundice
  • Enlarged liver
  • Bloating
  • A hard lump on the body‘s right side, below the ribs
  • Pain on the right side of the upper abdomen, or back and shoulder

Diagnosis of Liver Cancer

In addition to a physical exam, a number of tests are performed to confirm a diagnosis of liver cancer. Which tests are chosen depend on a person‘s age and medical condition, the type of cancer suspected, particular signs and symptoms, and previous test results. Tests include the following:

  • Blood tests
  • Ultrasound
  • CT scan
  • MRI
  • PET scan
  • Angiogram
  • Laparoscopy
  • Biopsy

Treatment of Liver Cancer

Treatment for liver cancer usually depends on the overall condition of the liver; the size, location and number of tumors; whether the cancer has spread; and the general health of the patient. If the cancer is localized and the rest of the liver is healthy, surgery may be performed to remove the tumor. A liver transplant is another option if the cancer has not spread. If neither of these options is viable, treatment may include the following:

  • Cryosurgery
  • Thermal ablation
  • Ethanol (alcohol) injections
  • Chemoembolization
  • Radiation therapy
  • Sorafenib (a drug prescribed in cases of advanced hepatocellular carcinoma)

There is ongoing research into finding better ways of treating liver cancer.

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