Liver cancer: Understand the causes, symptoms and treatment

Liver cancer: Understand the causes, symptoms and treatment

The liver, the largest organ of the body, is known to store nutrients, manufacture bile to digest foods, filter and remove harmful materials from the blood. But sometimes, things go wrong and liver cells turn deadly leading to liver cancer.

It is essential to take care of your liver health and take notice of any abnormal functioning of the liver, as it is the vital organ for your survival. You may survive with one kidney but you can’t live without a liver. Only early detection can help to treat it successfully. Here is some essential information you need to know about liver cancer.

What is liver cancer?

Liver cancer occurs when the liver cells grow in an uncontrolled fashion and affects the normal functioning of the liver. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), it is the 4th most common cancer and 3rd leading cause of cancer-related deaths globally.

It can either start in the liver (primary) or originate in other parts of the body and spread to the liver (secondary). Primary liver cancer can be categorised as hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer). If left untreated, it can lead to liver damage and life-threatening consequences.

What causes liver cancer?

The exact cause of liver cancer is unknown, however, most of the cases are caused due to cirrhosis and liver damage by excess alcohol consumption and prolonged hepatitis B or C infection.

It is also believed that certain factors can increase the risk of liver cancer including:

  • Age more than 60 years
  • Male Gender
  • Having a family history of liver cancer
  • Obesity and diabetes
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Genetic or hereditary liver diseases
  • Prolonged exposure to aflatoxins

What are the common liver cancer symptoms?

In the early stages it may not show any symptoms, however as the tumour grows the person may observe some warning signs such as:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen on the right side
  • Bloating and swelling in the abdomen
  • Enlarged liver
  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes)
  • Poor appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Nausea and vomiting

The symptoms may vary from person to person. You should keep in mind that these symptoms resemble the symptoms of other liver diseases. and do not always indicate liver cancer.

What are the liver cancer treatment options?

Before undergoing treatment, your oncologist may order some tests to determine the cancer progression and its specific stage. Liver tumours are usually diagnosed through biopsy, imaging tests such as ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and liver function tests.

The doctor will plan and discuss the treatment options, after analyzing the patient's test results. The treatment is solely dependent on the size, location, number of tumours, condition of the liver, the extent of cirrhosis, the spread of the tumour to other parts, the overall health of the patient and other risk factors.

If cancer has not spread and the rest of the liver is healthy, management options may include:

  • Liver surgery such as hepatectomy and segmentectomy to remove damaged parts of liver
  • Radiofrequency ablation and radiation therapy to destroy cancerous cells
  • Chemoembolization or radioembolization to block the blood supply to the tumor
  • Liver transplant in most severe cases

If cancer has spread outside the liver, or still within the liver and is not responding to any of the above treatments, management options may include oral anticancer medications, immunotherapy and new treatment options to be tested in clinical trials.

Taken together, liver cancer is a deadly disease that needs to be diagnosed and treated in early stages. Patients should understand the risk factors as it will help to reduce their chances of getting liver cancer. Also, if you are diagnosed with known liver disease, you should go for regular consultations and screenings. It will surely help to detect the symptoms at the earliest.

Also, explore some natural preventive tips to reduce the risk of liver cancer.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Q. Are cysts on the liver the same as cancer?
Ans. No, liver cysts are different and can be easily treated through medication or surgery.

Q. Are fatty liver disease and liver cancer-related?
Ans. Patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis or cirrhosis are at increased risk of developing liver cancer. However, it is not always sure that these diseases will always lead to cancer.

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