Liver Cancer

What is liver cancer?

Liver cancer, also called hepatic cancer, is a type of cancer that develops in the liver. Liver cancer is either considered primary or secondary. Primary liver cancer actually begins in the liver; secondary liver cancer begins in other parts of the body and spreads, or metastasizes, to the liver.

Because the liver is the largest organ inside the body and it is made up of different types of cells, many types of tumors can form in the liver, however secondary liver cancer is much more common than primary liver cancer. Many common types of cancer, including colon, rectum, lung, and breast cancers, spread to the liver.

What are the different types of liver cancer?

There are two main types of primary liver cancer. The most common type is hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). HCC begins in the hepatocytes, which are the main type of liver cells.

Cholangiocarcinoma, or cancer of the bile duct, is a type of liver cancer that develops in the ducts that transport bile produced by the liver.

Other rare types of liver cancer include:

  • Angiosarcomas
  • Hemangiosarcomas
  • Hepatoblastomas (primary affect children under 4)

Secondary liver cancer is very different from primary liver cancer. The cancer cells still look and act like cancer cells from the part of the body that they came from, and they need treatments aimed at that kind of cancer, not liver cancer.

What are the symptoms of liver cancer?

Symptoms of liver cancer don't typically appear in the early stages. When symptoms become noticeable, they often include:

  • Unintended weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling of fullness, even after eating small amounts
  • Unexplained nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Swelling and pain in the upper abdomen
  • Jaundice
  • Sudden worsening of symptoms in patients with hepatitis or cirrhosis

If symptoms indicate a possibility of liver cancer, a doctor will recommend a series of diagnostic tests, which may include a physical exam, blood tests, CT scan, MRI, ultrasound and/or a liver biopsy.

What are the causes and risk factors of liver cancer?

Some instances of liver cancer have a clear cause, like hepatitis or cirrhosis. Other liver cancers occur as a result of a genetic mutation in the DNA of liver cells. The cause of the genetic mutation is unknown, but may be associated with risk factors, including:

  • Liver diseases
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol
  • Exposure to toxins produced by mold

How is liver cancer treated?

Liver cancer treatment options vary depending on the type of cancer and the patient's overall health and medical history. Surgery may be recommended to remove tumors or parts of the liver. A liver transplant may also be a surgical option.

Radiation therapy and chemotherapy may be recommended as alternatives to, or in addition to, surgery.

Alternative treatment options may include tumor ablation, embolization therapy or targeted drug therapy.