The liver is one of the largest organs of the body and performs numerous important functions including detoxification of harmful substances that enter the body, metabolizing alcohol and aiding the body’s digestive process, among others. Liver cancer, also known as primary liver cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma or hepatoma, is a cancer that originates in the cells of the liver. This aggressive cancer is the third most common cancer worldwide.
Find out all you need to know about liver cancer, possible causes of liver cancer, symptoms and available liver cancer treatments.
About Liver Cancer
What is liver cancer? Your liver is made up of various types of cells including liver cells (hepatocytes), fat storing cells, bile ducts and blood vessels. 80% of liver tissue is made up of liver cells. Thus, primary liver cancer largely deals with cancer that originates in the liver cells (about 90-95% of all liver cancer cases).
Secondary liver cancer, cancer that has spread to the liver from other parts of the body, is also commonly referred to as liver cancer since this form occurs more frequently than hepatoma. However, this article will delve into the details of primary liver cancer and not secondary or metastatic liver disease.
Liver Cancer- Causes
Research has identified the causes and risk factors of liver cancer, which comprise of the following:
Hepatitis C Infection
Individuals suffering from Hepatitis C are at a greater risk of developing liver cancer. Hepatitis C is transferred via contaminated needles, infected blood products or direct contact with contaminated blood. If Hepatitis C patients have cirrhosis, are of an older age, consume excessive amounts of alcohol, are male, have a co-infection with hepatitis B and have high alpha-fetoprotein levels (a blood tumor marker), they are at a higher risk of developing liver cancer. However, the exact link between liver cancer development and hepatitis C is still unclear.
Hepatitis B Infection
Hepatitis B patients are also at a greater risk of suffering from liver cancer. Hepatitis B is transferred via sexual contact with an infected individual, reusing infected needles and contact with infected blood products. Patients, who suffer from hepatitis B virus cirrhosis (liver scarring), have a family history of liver cancer, are chronic alcohol consumers, and are male, are at a higher risk of developing liver cancer.
Excessive alcohol consumption causes liver scarring (cirrhosis) which elevates the risk of liver cancer development. Usually, liver cancer develops 10 or so years after the alcoholic with liver cirrhosis has stopped drinking. After the drinking has ceased, the liver tries to heal itself by generating healthy cells. During this healing process, the probability of a mutation occurring is very high. Thus, most of these individuals do develop liver cancer. Why don’t active chronic alcoholics develop liver cancer? They often do not live long enough to develop liver cancer, and usually die suffering from liver failure or other complications.
Patients diagnosed with hereditary hemochromatosis are at a 30% higher risk of developing liver cancer. Those patients who develop liver cirrhosis in their hemochromatosis face the greatest risk of all.
Other liver cancer causes include infection by the dangerous liver cancer forming chemical Aflatoxin B1, diabetes and obesity, drugs and chemicals that may lead to the formation of benign liver tumors which have the capacity to become malignant, and different types of liver cirrhosis such as hereditary tyrosinemia which leads to early cirrhosis.
Liver Cancer- Symptoms
Liver cancer is a tricky disease as it does not have any specific symptoms that patients can identify on their own. In countries with the appropriate medical facilities, high risk patients undergo regular screening and thus are diagnosed during the early stages of cancer development. In developing countries patients are usually unaware of the cancer until it reaches an advanced stage at which it starts exhibiting symptoms rapidly.
The early signs of liver cancer in patients who have cirrhosis can range from sudden and unexplained weight loss or fever. Cirrhosis patients who suddenly experience a serious health complication, such as jaundice, abdominal swelling and excess fluid and muscle wasting, should get screened for liver cancer.
An enlarged or swollen liver is an indication of liver cancer. Moreover, the presence of liver cancer can be established by a distinct sound (hepatic bruit) which can be heard via a stethoscope in about one half of the cancer patients.
The most widely used liver blood test, though not a 100% reliable, used to diagnose liver cancer is the alpha fetoprotein (AFP) test. High levels of AFP may be an indication of liver cancer in about 60% of liver cancer patients. Other methods of diagnosis are imaging and biopsy.
Liver Cancer- Treatments
There are various liver cancer treatments. Success depends on the stage of the liver cancer and how individual patients respond to the treatment. The options range from liver transplantation, chemotherapy, chemoembolization, ablation and proton beam therapy. Liver cancer patients usually go through multiple treatments: if one does not show any signs of improvement, they move on to the next. Signs of improvement can be judged by imaging and lower levels of AFP in the liver blood test.
High risk individuals should consult their health practitioners and discuss regular liver blood test and screening options so that liver cancer can be diagnosed early and treated accordingly.