Liver cancer is a cancer that happens anywhere in the liver. This disease occurs when abnormal cells grow faster than the normal cells. The most common type of liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma, which occurs in people suffering from chronic liver disease and develops within the bile ducts. The other types of liver cancer are intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma and hepatoblastoma.
It is important to note that cancer that spreads to the liver is more common than cancer that begins in the liver. The cancer that begins in other area of the body such as the colon, lung or breast and then spreads to the liver is known as metastatic cancer.
Causes of Liver Cancer
It is still very unclear to the doctors on the exact causes of liver cancer. However most liver cancers have links to cirrhosis. However, chronic infections with hepatitis B or C viruses are the most common causes of liver cancer.
People with either type of virus have a significantly increased risk of developing liver cancer over healthy individuals, as both forms can result in cirrhosis. Other risk factors for liver cancer development include:
- Type 2 diabetes: people with diabetes especially if they also have hepatitis are more likely to develop liver cancer.
- Family history: If any member of the nuclear family happened to have had liver cancer, you have a higher risk of developing the disease.
- Overconsumption of alcohol: Consuming more than six alcoholic drinks every day for an extended period can lead to cirrhosis. This, in turn, increases the risk of liver cancer.
- Long term exposure to aflatoxins: The risk of liver cancer increases following long term exposure to aflatoxins, a substance that forms when mold grow on grains.
- Low immunity: People with a weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV are at risk of liver cancer; five times greater than healthy individuals.
- Obesity: Obesity can contribute to cirrhosis and fatty liver disease which can easily raise the risks of many cancers.
- Smoking: Former and current smokers have a higher risk for liver cancer compared to people who have never smoked.
Signs and Symptoms of Liver Cancer
Signs and symptoms of liver cancer often do not present in the early stages of the disease and tend to show up at the later stages of the disease. However, having a liver screening even when you don’t have any symptoms can make an early diagnosis, which can lead to a successful treatment. Some of the most common symptoms of liver cancer include:
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling very full after a small meal
- Nausea or vomiting
- Feeling of fullness under the ribs on the left quadrant
- Pain in the abdomen
- Swelling of the abdomen
- Fluid build-up in the abdomen
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
Diagnosis of Liver Cancer
If an individual experiences the above symptoms, it is important that you see a liver specialist immediately. While here, he/she will undergo a number of tests in order to have a definite diagnosis of the condition.
These tests include:
- Physical exam
- Blood tests to find out how well the liver is working, and how long it takes the blood to clot.
- Liver function test which measures the enzymes that the liver releases
- Liver biopsy whereby a small tissue of the liver is taken for examination
- CT Scan to take detailed pictures of the body organs
- Ultrasound to create images of the body organs
Stages of Liver Cancer
There are four stages of liver cancer. These are:
Stage 1: The tumor is located only in the liver, and hasn’t spread to other areas
Stage 2: There is one tumor which has spread to the blood vessel, or there are more than one smaller tumors which are only located in the liver and haven’t spread.
Stage 3: There is more than one large tumor and and the cancer has moved beyond the liver to large blood vessels, the lymph nodes or other organs.
Stage 4: The cancer has spread to other parts of the body (metastasized)
Treatment of Liver Cancer
In cancer care, a multidisciplinary team works together to create the patient’s overall treatment plan. After a definitive diagnosis, the treatment options presented will depend on:
- The stage of the cancer
- How far the cancer has spread
- How aggressive the cancer is
- The patient’s preferences and overall health
- Degree of damage to the liver
When a tumor is found at an early stage and the patient’s liver is working well, treatment is aimed at trying to eliminate the cancer and preserving the function of the liver, which may include chemotherapy and/or surgery. The care plan also includes treatment of symptoms and the side effects, which is an important part of cancer care.
When the liver cancer is found in the later stages, or the patient’s liver is not working well, an alternative treatment plan is recommended, which may include liver transplant. At this point, the goals of the treatment may focus on slowing the growth of the cancerous cells and relieving symptoms to improve quality of life.
Shared decision-making, whereby there is direct and clear communication between the patient and doctor is very important.
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