Liver Cancer: subtypes, causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and prevention

Liver cancer is cancer that grows in the liver, which is an organ located in your upper right abdomen. Liver cancer is commonly seen in patients with hepatitis B or C infections. This condition in fact contains subtypes, such as hepatocellular cancer and cholangiocarcinoma or mixed cancers. Surgical resection is the most effective treatment to improve patients’ lives.

Subtypes

Liver cancer is a broad name that means cancers growing on the liver. If the tumor is derived from a mutated hepatocellular cell, it is called hepatocellular carcinoma. If the tumor is originated from a mutated bile duct cell, it is termed cholangiocarcinoma. In some cases, the cancer is made up of the 2 mixed components. Hepatocellular carcinoma is much more common than cholangiocarcinoma. Certainly, there are also other types of liver cancer, such as angiosarcoma and hepatoblastoma, but they are much rarer.

Causes

Like almost any other cancers, the exact cause for liver cancer remains unknown. However, doctors do know that the following conditions may increase your risk of liver cancer:

  1. You are hepatitis B or C virus positive. This is probably the most important risk factor for liver cancer. Hepatitis B virus infection is prevalent in Asia, accounting for high incidence of liver cancer in countries like China. In the Western world, hepatitis C virus infection is much more common. Both hepatitis B and C virus infections would cause liver damages and end up in liver cirrhosis and cancer in a subset of patients.
  2. Prolonged and heavy alcohol consumption would lead to liver cirrhosis and cancer in some patients. In fact, alcohol consumption and hepatitis C virus infections are the 2 most common causes of liver cancer in the United States.
  3. Consumption of grains that has not been stored properly. A kind of fungus would grow on it and leave a liver toxin called aflatoxin, which is an inducer of liver cancer.
  4. Liver cancer is also more common in old people and those who have diabetes and obesity.

Symptoms

In the early stage of liver cancer, many patients are asymptomatic. However, this does not necessarily mean you are early stage when your liver cancer is accidentally detected. With gradual enlargement of the liver cancer, you may have symptoms of:

  • Abdominal pain or discomfort that is predominantly located in your upper right abdomen;
  • Yellow coloring of your skin and eyes (jaundice);
  • Loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting;
  • Unintentional weight loss;
  • Lump in your upper right abdomen

Diagnosis

Your doctor may need the following tests to diagnose a liver cancer:

  • Blood tests, especially alfa-fetoprotein (AFP). If it is significantly elevated, then a suspicion of liver cancer should be raised. The blood tests would help your doctor to test whether you have hep B/C and how your liver is functioning.
  • Imaging tests, such as contrast-enhanced CT or MRI scans. These tests would suggest the possibility of liver cancer, and also provide other critical information, such as the size, number, locations and metastasis status of the liver cancer.
  • Liver biopsy: generally under ultrasound guidance, your doctor insert a needle through your upper right abdomen to take a small sample of the tumor to examine whether it is liver cancer or not. This test is definitive.

Treatment

The most important and effective treatment for liver cancer is surgical resection. If your condition permits, your doctor would cut away a proportion of your affected liver (hepatectomy). If you are late-stage, you are not a good candidate for surgery and thus you may be instead treated by chemotherapy or intravenous ethanol ablation therapy. Your doctor may also use targeted therapy, such as sorafenib (Nexavar) to destroy cancer cells. In selected patients, liver transplant can be performed.

Prevention

According to the causes for liver cancer, you are advised to:

  1. Get vaccinated for Hep B for which vaccines are available;
  2. Prevent yourself from getting hep C for which no vaccines are available, such as perform protected sex, do not use illegal drugs and avoid tattoos or piercings;
  3. Reduce alcohol consumption and keep a healthy weight;
  4. Do not eat foods that are not properly stored.
* The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.