Liver Cancer Facts
Each year about 30,000 men and women in the United States are diagnosed with cancer of the liver or cancer of the bile ducts inside the liver, according to the American Cancer Society.
What Is Liver Cancer?
Primary liver cancer occurs when cells in the liver begin to grow abnormally. Cancer cells do not respond to regular cell growth, division, and death signals like healthy cells do. They also don’t organize normally. Instead they grow into a tumor, which may invade surrounding layers of tissue and possibly spread to other organs.
Cancer that starts in another part of the body, such as the colon or breast, can spread (metastasize) through the bloodstream to the liver. This is called secondary liver cancer. It is also named based on the place where it started; for instance, colon cancer that spreads to the liver (or another organ) is metastatic colon cancer. The areas of cancer that develop in the liver are called liver metastases (or liver mets, for short). Most cancers in the liver are secondary cancers. They started somewhere else in the body.
What the Liver Does
Your liver is a vital organ with many important functions.
- It makes bile that helps digest your food.
- It processes and stores many of the nutrients absorbed from your intestine.
- It produces some of the clotting factors that keep you from bleeding too much when you get injured.
- It detoxifies harmful substances in your blood so they can be excreted in stool and urine.
The liver gets most of its supply of blood from the portal vein, which carries nutrient-rich blood from the intestines to the liver; the rest comes from the hepatic artery, which carries oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the liver.
Small tubes, or ducts, inside the liver collect bile. These ducts carry the bile into two larger ducts (right and left hepatic ducts), which lead outside the liver. The two larger ducts join to form the common hepatic duct.
The gallbladder stores bile. When you eat, bile is released, flowing from the gallbladder through the cystic duct into the common bile duct (where the cystic duct joins the common hepatic duct) and into the small intestine.
Certain factors, including chronic hepatitis B or C infection, heavy alcohol use, and fatty liver disease, raise the risk for liver cancer.
Liver cancer typically doesn’t cause symptoms until the disease is advanced. However, certain symptoms could indicate liver cancer (or some other health problem), so they should be checked by a doctor.
Doctors may be able to diagnose liver cancer based on a computed tomography scan or magnetic resonance imaging. Sometimes a biopsy is necessary. You will likely have blood tests, too, so your team can tell more about your condition.
Several types of cancer can begin in the liver or in related structures, such as the bile ducts and gallbladder. Benign tumors and cysts can affect these organs, too.
The treatment that your team will recommend for liver cancer will be based on the stage of your cancer, the health of your liver, and your overall health. The stage depends on the number and size of your tumors and whether they have spread.
These resources will help you find more information about liver cancer and its treatment.