Liver cancer, also known as hepatic cancer, is a serious condition that arises when cells in the liver start to grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. Detecting liver cancer early is crucial, as the 5-year survival rate for localized liver cancer is 31%, but drops dramatically to 3% when it has spread to other organs. Knowing the first signs and symptoms of liver cancer can help with early diagnosis and treatment. This article will cover the common first signs of liver cancer, what causes it, the available treatments, and frequently asked questions.
Understanding Liver Cancer
The liver is the largest internal organ in the body, located under the ribs on the right side. It performs many essential functions like producing bile to help digest fats, filtering toxins from the blood, storing nutrients, and much more. Liver cancer develops when DNA mutations cause liver cells to multiply uncontrollably and form a mass.
This cancer usually originates in the liver but can spread to other parts of the body in its later stages. The most common types of liver cancer are hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), which starts in the main type of liver cell, and cholangiocarcinoma, which develops from the bile ducts.
Symptoms Of Liver Cancer
Liver cancer does not always produce clear signs or symptoms in its early stages. Some possible symptoms to look out for are:
- Loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss: As liver cancer grows, it can suppress appetite. Dropping several pounds unintentionally could signify a problem.
- Abdominal pain or swelling: As the liver enlarges, it may cause dull pain or a feeling of fullness. Fluid accumulation in the abdomen can also occur.
- Jaundice: The yellowing of skin and eyes is a classic red flag for liver problems. It’s caused by a buildup of bilirubin, which the diseased liver cannot process properly.
- Nausea and fatigue: Cancer cells invading the liver can release cytokines that make people feel tired, nauseated, weak, and generally unwell.
- Itchy skin: The same bilirubin accumulation that causes jaundice can also cause general itchiness without a rash.
- Unexplained fever: Some liver cancer patients experience recurrent fevers with no known underlying infection.
- Abnormal bruising: Cancers like leukemia can impair blood clotting, while liver cancer disrupts platelet production, allowing unusual bruising.
If any of these symptoms are present, it warrants promptly scheduling an appointment with a doctor for evaluation.
Causes Of Liver Cancer
Some of the leading causes and risk factors for liver cancer include:
– Chronic hepatitis B or hepatitis C viral infection: Having long-term hepatitis damages the liver over many years, allowing cancer to take hold.
– Cirrhosis: This severe scarring of the liver from diseases like fatty liver can set the stage for tumor growth. Up to 20% of cirrhosis cases lead to liver cancer.
– Alcohol abuse: Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol regularly can inflame the liver and allow cancer to develop.
– Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD): The accumulation of fat in liver cells causes inflammation that may evolve into cancer down the road.
– Exposure to aflatoxins: These toxic substances from mold are sometimes found on peanuts, grains, and soybeans stored in warm, humid places.
– Diabetes: Having this condition doubles the risk of liver cancer. It’s not entirely clear why this link exists.
– Obesity: Being severely overweight stresses the liver and alters hormone levels in ways that encourage cancer growth.
Treatments For Liver Cancer
Some of the common treatments for liver cancer are:
- Surgery: If the cancer is contained to just part of the liver, surgically removing that portion can be curative. Laparoscopic surgery is often used.
- Tumor ablation: Using extreme heat or cold to destroy tumors without removing them is an option for small tumors.
- Radiofrequency ablation: High-energy radio waves applied through a probe heat and eliminate tumors.
- Embolization therapy: Blocking blood flow to the liver tumor helps kill cancer cells. Chemo may be given first.
- Radiation therapy: High radiation doses target and damage cancer cells’ DNA to shrink or slow growth.
- Targeted therapy: Newer drugs like sorafenib (Nexavar) and Lenvatinib (Lenvima) specifically act on pathways liver cancer cells need to grow and spread.
- Immunotherapy: Checkpoint inhibitor drugs enhance the immune system’s ability to recognize and eliminate cancer.
- Chemotherapy: Medications like doxorubicin, 5-fluorouracil, and cisplatin kill rapidly dividing cancer cells but have more whole-body side effects.
The best treatment course depends on the type of liver cancer, stage, other medical conditions, and a patient’s goals of care. Combining surgery, systemic drugs, and radiation often provides the best outcomes.
Catching liver cancer in its earliest stages gives patients the best chance of survival and effective treatment. Being aware of potential warning signs like unexplained weight loss, abdominal swelling, jaundice, and nausea allows for prompt diagnosis.
Known risk factors like hepatitis viruses, cirrhosis, heavy alcohol use, diabetes, and obesity can require proactive screening in some people. Advances in surgical techniques, cancer drugs, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy continue to improve the outlook for liver cancer patients. With a comprehensive and personalized treatment plan, it is possible to live for many years after a liver cancer diagnosis.
A: Doctors may order blood tests like AFP (alpha-fetoprotein), AFP-L3%, and PIVKA-II to look for biomarkers associated with liver cancer. Liver function tests (LFTs) also give clues to the liver’s status.
A: Chronic infection with hepatitis B and C viruses is responsible for up to 80% of primary liver cancers globally. Other major causes are cirrhosis, alcohol abuse, NAFLD, aflatoxin exposure, obesity, and diabetes.
A: The growth rate varies by case, but liver cancer often develops silently over 10-20+ years before becoming symptomatic. Without treatment, end-stage liver cancer typically leads to death within 3-6 months. Early detection and treatment can slow its progression.
A: If caught very early before spreading, liver cancer can sometimes be cured with surgery or transplantation. But it more often recurs and spreads. Treatments can control rather than cure advanced liver cancer, lengthening survival.
A: Localized early-stage liver cancer has the best prognosis. As it grows and spreads to lymph nodes, blood vessels, and other organs, the outlook worsens progressively. Stage 4 means distant metastases are present.