(Malignant Hepatoma, Hepatocellular Carcinoma, Primary Liver Cancer)
What is Liver Cancer
The liver is on the right side of the abdomen. Its function is to store and metabolize nutrients, and filter and store blood. Liver cancer is the growth of cancer cells in the liver.
Cancer occurs when the body’s cells divide uncontrollably. If the cells continue to divide uncontrollably, a mass of tissue called a tumor forms. The term cancer refers to malignant tumors. Malignant tumors can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body.
Liver Cancer Causes
The cause of liver cancer is unknown, but research has shown that certain risk factors are associated with the disease.
Liver Cancer Risk factors
The factors that increase your likelihood of developing liver cancer are:
- Male sex
- Age: 40 years and oldera
- Infection with hepatitis B virus or hepatitis
- Formation of scar tissue in the liver (called cirrhosis)
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Exposure to infectious agents, such as fasciola hepatica (which is common in South Pacific countries)
- Hemochromatosis (abnormal accumulation of iron in body tissues)
- Hereditary metabolic disorders, such as AAT deficiency and tyrosinemia
- Exposure to certain chemicals:
- Aflatoxin: a substance produced by a fungus that infects foods such as wheat, peanuts, soybeans, corn, and rice in tropical and subtropical regions
- Vinyl chloride and thorium dioxide: strictly controlled use chemicals
- Anabolic steroids: male hormones are sometimes prescribed for medical reasons but can also be taken by athletes to increase their strength
- Arsenic: a toxic chemical
Liver Cancer Symptoms
The symptoms of liver cancer in the early stages are vague and often go unnoticed.
Liver cancer can cause the following symptoms:
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal swelling
- Dark urine
- Excessive skin itching
- Confusion and excessive sleepiness
- The skin and the white part of the eye acquire a yellowish color
These symptoms can also be caused by other less serious health conditions. Consult your doctor if you have these symptoms.
Liver Cancer Diagnosis
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. You will have a physical exam.
Tests may include:
- Blood tests: to determine if the liver is working properly or to find substances in the blood that indicate the presence of cancer
- X-rays: chest and abdomen
- Angiogram: X-rays of blood vessels
- Computed tomography (CT) scan -a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of the inside of the liver
- MRI scan -a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of the inside of the liver
- Laparoscopy-a thin, lighted tube is inserted through a small incision in the abdomen to look at the liver
- Biopsy: removal of a sample of liver tissue to assess the presence of cancer cells
Liver Cancer Treatment
Once liver cancer is found, tests are done to establish the stage. This type of testing will help determine if the cancer has spread and, if so, to what extent. Surgery is the only curative procedure for liver cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can reduce symptoms associated with cancer, but they are not considered curative.
- Surgery: the removal of a cancerous tumor, of nearby tissues and, possibly, of nearby lymph nodes
- Cryosurgery: destruction of tumors by freezing with a probe
- Ethanol ablation: eliminates cancer cells by injecting alcohol directly into the tumor
- Radiation therapy: the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and reduce tumors. It can be of different types.
- External radiation therapy: radiation is applied to the liver from an external source to the body
- Internal radiation therapy: radioactive materials are placed inside the liver inside or near cancer cells
- Chemotherapy: drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body to kill, mainly, cancer cells, but also some healthy cells. It can be administered in tablets, injections or through a catheter directly in the liver.
- Sorafenib (Nexavar, Bayer / Onyx): a new type of treatment that attacks the vascular endothelial growth factor receptor. It is used for advanced liver cancer, since in one study it was observed that it improved the median survival from 7.9 to 10.7 months.
- Biological therapy: the use of medications or substances generated by the body to increase or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer. It is also called biological response modifier therapy.
How to Prevent Liver Cancer
To reduce the risk of getting liver cancer:
- If you use needles to inject medications or drugs, you should always use a clean syringe and you should not share the syringe with anyone else.
- Use condoms when you have sex if you do not have a monogamous relationship with your partner or if you do not know if your partner has hepatitis.
- Vaccinate your children against hepatitis B.
- Drink alcohol in moderation. This means no more than two drinks a day for men or a daily drink for women.