What Is Liver Cancer?

The Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention of Liver Cancer

Human liver cancer, artwork
Liver Cancer Guide. SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI / Getty Images

Liver cancer is a type of cancer in which malignant cells are found in the liver, the second largest organ in our body. The liver weighs about 2 to 6 pounds and is located in the right upper abdomen. The liver has many duties, such as detoxifying substances, secreting bile and metabolizing carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

Like other organs in our body, the liver is susceptible to diseases, including cancer.

There are several types of cancer that can develop in the liver of adults, including:

  • hepatocellular carcinoma, also known as hepatoma (most common type of liver cancer)
  • cholangiocarcinomas

Liver cancer can also be classified as primary or secondary. Primary liver cancer is cancer that has originated in the liver. Secondary liver cancer is cancer that has spread to the liver from another location in the body.

Children can develop a rare type of liver cancer called "hepatoblastoma." Since hepatoblastoma is very rare and is a childhood cancer, this article will solely reference adult primary liver cancer.

Liver Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

The exact causes of liver cancer aren't known at this time. Researchers have identified several known risk factors for liver cancer, though. Cirrhosis, a condition marked by scarring of the liver, is a major risk factor for liver cancer. It has several causes, with excessive, long-term alcohol consumption being a primary cause.

Smoking, alcohol abuse and being infected with hepatitis are all factors that increase the chance of developing liver cancer.

Other risk factors include hemochromatosis, primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) and primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC).

Symptoms of Liver Cancer

Liver cancer does not present any symptoms in the early stages.

As the disease progresses, symptoms of liver cancer include:

  • jaundice (the yellowing of the skin and eyes)
  • unintentional weight loss
  • loss of appetite
  • pain and/or discomfort on the right side of the abdomen
  • pain or discomfort that occurs in the right shoulder blade

Diagnosis of Liver Cancer

Blood work (such as liver function tests), a hepatitis panel, and tumor markers are often the first steps in diagnosing liver cancer. One specific test, the alpha-fetoprotein tumor maker test (AFP), may be ordered for screening liver diseases. A tumor marker test measures the amount of substances in the body released by cells and organs. Many times, an increase in the level of these substances can indicate certain diseases. The AFP test can indicate liver cancer if there is a spike in certain levels.

Your doctor may also recommend that you have an ultrasound. During an ultrasound, a technician uses a small instrument that glides along your skin, showing your organs on a screen. It is completely painless and allows doctors to get a good look at the liver.

Other imaging tests that help diagnose liver cancer include MRI and CT scan.

Ultimately, it is a biopsy that determines whether cancer is present or not.

During a liver biopsy, a fine needle in inserted into the liver through a small incision made in the skin. The biopsy needle retrieves a small sample of liver tissue, and the needle is removed. You are given a local anesthetic for the procedure, and it is performed usually on an outpatient basis at a hospital.

A liver biopsy can be obtained during laparoscopic surgery as well. Transjugular biopsy is less common, but it is an option when there is a concern about blood clotting or excessive fluid in the abdomen.

Liver Cancer Treatment

How liver cancer is treated differs, depending on the stage of the disease.

Some treatment plans may include standard treatments, such as chemotherapy, while some plans will include clinical trials of new drugs and treatment methods. Regardless of what type of treatment plan you and your doctor choose, you should know all the options that are available.

There are a couple of different options for treating liver cancer surgically. These options include:

  • Partial hepatectomy: A partial hepatectomy is the surgical removal of the cancerous part of the liver.
  • Liver transplant: In this procedure, the diseased liver is removed and is replaced with a part or entire healthy liver. A liver transplant is available for select patients, and liver donors can be strangers or family members who meet specific criteria.
  • Radiofrequency ablation: This is the use of a probe that has tiny electrodes that destroy cancer cells. The probe is inserted through an incision in the abdomen, under anesthesia.
  • Chemotherapy may be prescribed to treat liver cancer. Treatment drugs work by eliminating rapidly multiplying cancer cells; however, there are other healthy cells in the body that multiply just as quickly, such as hair follicle cells. Unfortunately, many chemotherapy drugs may not be able to discern the two, attacking healthy cells and causing side effects, such as hair loss.

Liver Cancer Prevention

Some cases of liver cancer can't be prevented. Factors, such as genetics and involuntary exposure to certain chemicals, are things we can't really control. There are, however, some simple lifestyle changes we can make to help reduce our risk factor for liver cancer. These simple tips will lead you in the path of reducing your risk factor: Watch your alcohol intake. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and alcohol abuse leads to a disease that causes cirrhosis. Having cirrhosis is a risk factor for liver cancer. If you do drink, do so in moderation.

Get the Hepatitis B Vaccine for You and Your Children. The hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for all children in the United States and is required for school entry. If you are an adult, take a look over your medical records to ensure you were properly immunized as a child. If you don't have access to those records, talk with your physician about how the vaccine may benefit you as an adult. Ensure your children receive the vaccine at recommended ages. Hepatitis B infection is a major risk factor for liver cancer development.

Practice Safe Sex. By having unprotected sex, you can contract many diseases, including hepatitis C. Being infected with hepatitis B or C is one of the major risk factors for liver cancer.

Don't Share Needles. Shared tattoo and illegal drug needles are a source of infection of not only HIV, but also hepatitis C. If you get a tattoo, make sure the tattoo artist uses new needles. It is a nationwide law, but it never hurts to double-check. If you are an IV drug user, never share needles.

Quit Smoking. If you are smoker, now is never a better time to quit. Smoking not only has been linked to liver cancer, it has also been connected with many other types of cancers and diseases as well.