Overview and Facts about Liver Cancer
Liver cancer is the growth of abnormal liver tissue. Liver cancer develops from genetic changes in liver tissue cells that cause the liver cells to multiply uncontrollably and form tumors. Liver cancer may also occur if cancer develops in another organ in the body and spreads to the liver, which is called metastatic liver cancer. In 2018, liver cancer was responsible for 5% of all cancer-related deaths. It can affect both children and adults, although it is more common in adults.
The liver is an organ that is part of your digestive system, and a vital part of your body’s digestive health. It is your body’s powerhouse for removing toxins from your body, digesting and processing food you consume, and storing food molecules as an energy source. Your liver also plays an important role in regulating your blood cholesterol levels to help prevent the build-up of cholesterol in your arteries and veins. Thus, an unhealthy liver can have drastic consequences, such as toxin or toxic waste overload, high or unregulated blood cholesterol levels, or digestion problems.
Signs and Symptoms of Liver Cancer
At early stages of the disease, those affected may experience little to no signs or symptoms of liver cancer. However, in severe cases or at later stages of the disease, signs and symptoms can become more pronounced. Liver cancer symptoms may also mirror those of liver disease, such as cirrhosis. Therefore, it is important to determine with a medical professional if symptoms are caused by liver disease or liver cancer.
Liver cancer symptoms include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Pain in the upper right abdominal area, shoulder, or back
- A hard lump below the rib cage on the right side of the body, which is a physical sign of a tumor
- Jaundice or yellowing of the skin and eyes
Causes and Risk Factors of Liver Cancer
Individuals with a high risk of liver cancer have medical conditions that affect the liver, such as liver cirrhosis, hemochromatosis or iron storage disease, hepatitis A or C (viral hepatitis), obesity, and/or diabetes. Regarding lifestyle risk factors, heavy alcohol use or abuse is a key risk factor.
Obesity-related liver cancer may be caused by the onset of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD is a condition that is related to liver cirrhosis, a condition characterized by the buildup of fat in the liver due to alcohol abuse; however, NAFLD is characterized by the buildup of liver fat in the absence of alcohol abuse.
Tests and Diagnosis of Liver Cancer
Blood tests and physical exams are used to diagnose liver cancer. Abdominal ultrasounds are also used to examine liver tissue for the presence of a tumor. If a suspected tumor is found, then a small fraction of the tumor tissue may be removed via a biopsy to confirm liver cancer through laboratory testing. Molecular testing may also be performed to identify other characteristics associated with the tumor, such as genetic expression of certain proteins that may explain the tumor’s uncontrolled growth characteristics.
Liver cancer may also be confirmed by:
Treatment and Care for Liver Cancer
Depending on the location of the liver cancer tumor, surgery may be performed to remove liver tumor tissue. Liver transplantation may also be necessary in the event of liver failure. Radiation therapy can be performed to destroy liver cancer tumors with X-rays and other particles. Chemotherapy may also be performed to destroy liver tumor cells. In conjunction with chemotherapy and radiation therapy, embolization may be used to reduce or block the liver tumor’s blood supply. These procedures are called chemoembolization and radioembolization, respectively. Radiofrequency ablation and microwave therapy are also used to destroy liver cancer tumors.