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.