Liver Cancer Facts
Liver cancer, or hepatocellular carcinoma, is a disease in which malignant cells grow in the tissue of the liver, one of the largest organs in the body.
The liver is an essential organ that people cannot live without. It processes and stores many of the nutrients absorbed from the intestine, causes the secretion of bile that helps in the digestion of food, and produces some of the clotting factors that keep you from bleeding too much when cut or injured. The liver gets most of its supply of blood from the hepatic portal vein, which carries nutrient-rich blood from the intestines; the rest comes from the hepatic artery, which supplies the liver with blood that is rich in oxygen.
Because the liver is made up of several different types of cells, several types of tumors can form in the liver; some are cancerous and some are benign.
Roughly 75 percent of primary liver cancers begin in hepatocytes (liver cells). Hepatocellular carcinoma most commonly occurs in people whose livers have been damaged. This damage is usually caused by alcohol abuse, by chronic infection with the hepatitis B or hepatitis C virus, or cirrhosis, from food contaminants, or from metabolic diseases.
Many symptoms of liver cancer often do not appear until the disease is advanced. However, the following symptoms could indicate liver cancer:
- pain in the upper stomach, right shoulder, or back
- unexplained weight loss
- lack of appetite
- yellow-green color of the skin and eyes
- dark urine
- fever without infection
- worsening of chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis
- enlargement of the liver
- swelling in the leg or abdomen.
Liver cancer is usually diagnosed through blood tests, diagnostic imaging, or invasive procedures such as a surgical biopsy, laparoscopy, or a combination of the two. The alpha-fetoprotein test measures the level of a certain protein in the blood produced by the liver. Elevated levels of alpha-fetoprotein are often high in people with hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common type of liver cancer.
Several diagnostic tools may be used:
- Computed tomography or CT scan, which uses X-rays to take pictures of the body that are then combined by a computer to give a detailed cross-sectional image.
- Ultrasound, which uses sound waves to produce a picture of the inside of the body.
- Magnetic resonance imaging or MRI, which uses radio waves and strong magnets to provide a detailed image of the body
- Angiography, which is an X-ray procedure for examining blood vessels.
However, the only certain way to determine if liver cancer is present is with a biopsy (sample of the tumor tissue).
Other invasive diagnostic techniques include:
- Laparoscopy, which provides a view of the liver and other organs through a lighted tube
- Endoscopy, which examines the interior lining of a body using an endoscope.
- Cholangiography, which uses a needle, inserted into the bile ducts within the liver.
The hepatitis B virus and hepatitis C virus are known risk factors for liver cancer. Areas with a higher rate of these infectious diseases have a higher incidence of liver cancer, parts of Africa, China, and Southeast Asia.
The risk of liver cancer is also greater for people whose livers are damaged from alcohol abuse.
Men are twice as likely to get liver cancer, and people who have family members with liver cancer may be more likely to get the disease. In the United States, liver cancer occurs more often in people over age 60.
Other risk factors include long-term exposure to aflatoxin (produced in tropical and subtropical regions by a fungus that often contaminates rice, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans), anabolic steroids, birth control pills, and arsenic.