What Is Liver Cancer?
The liver is known to constantly filter blood which circulates through our body, converting nutrients and drugs that is absorbed from the digestive tract into chemicals that can be used readily. The liver also carries out several other important functions, eg, toxin removal and also removal of other chemical waste products from the blood and making them ready for excretion. Since all the blood in the body must go via the liver, it is unusually handy to cancer cells coursing through the bloodstream.
The liver may be affected by primary liver cancer, in the liver, or by cancer formed in other parts of the body and then slowly spreads to the liver. Most often, liver cancer is metastatic in nature (secondary stage) - it starts somewhere else in the body. In under developed countries, with the prevalence of hepatitis, the occurance of liver cancer is expected to be high since the microbes are exposing the liver to a wide range of illnesses.
Now, the liver is made up of many different types of cells, and thus many types of tumors can actually form there. Some of these are benign (noncancerous), while others are cancerous and can spread to other parts of the body (metastasize). These tumors have different causes and are treated differently.
How is liver cancer caused?
Primary liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma) usually occurs in liver that is damaged by birth defects, chronic infections such as Hepatitis B, C, haemochromatosis which is a hereditary disease, and cirrhosis.
- Several cancer-causing substances that are associated with primary liver cancer, include a few chemicals such as arsenic and vinylchloride and herbicides.
- Smoking, along with alcohol, also inflates the risk.
- Aflatoxins, cancer-causing substances that are produced by a type of plant mold, have also been drawn in. Aflatoxins can contaminate wheat, peanuts, rice, corn, and soybeans.
Other risk factors for liver cancer may include:
- Sex -Men are more likely to get liver cancer than women.
- Weight -Obesity can increase the risk for livercancer.
- Race -Liver cancer is most common in Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
- Anabolic steroid use -Male hormones used by athletes to inmprove muscle can also increase liver cancer risk with long-term use.
- History of diabetes - Studies have suggested a link between diabetes and liver cancer. This is likely due to the link between diabetes and fatty liver disease.
- Inherited metabolic diseases.Diseases that disrupt the normal metabolism of the body have been shown to increase your risk of liver cancer.
What are the risk factors for liver cancer?
- Incidence rates of liver cancer are rising in the world due to increasing prevalence of cirrhosis caused by chronic hepatitis C and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
- Liver cirrhosis due to any cause is considered a risk factor for liver cancer.
- The risk factors for liver cancer in cirrhosis are being male, age 55 years or older, Asian ethnicity, family history in a first-degree relative, obesity, hepatitis B and C, alcohol use, and high iron content in the blood.
- Chronic hepatitis B infection even without cirrhosis is a risk factor for liver cancer.
What are liver cancer symptoms and signs?
There are no specific symptoms for liver cancer. As the tumor grows, it may cause symptoms of pain in the right side of the abdomen or a feeling of fullness when eating. Some patients may have worsening of symptoms of chronic liver disease or cirrhosis, which often precedes the development of cancer of the liver.
For example, patients may complain of unexplained weight loss, wasting (cachexia), decreased appetite, increased swelling of the feet and belly, and yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice).
How is liver cancer diagnosed?
The best way to detect liver cancer is through surveillance ultrasound of the liver done every six months in a patient with a diagnosis of cirrhosis and to treat the liver cancer as soon as it is detected. The following tests are recommended by the physician:
- Blood tests: alfa-fetoprotein (AFP), which may be elevated in 70% of patients with liver cancer. AFP levels could be normal in liver cancer.
- Imaging studies
- Liver biopsy
What is the treatment for liver cancer?
The treatment chosen usually depends upon how much the cancer has spread and what is the general health status of the liver. For example, the extent of cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver can determine the treatment options for the cancer. Similarly, the spread and extent of spread of cancer beyond the liver tissue plays an important part in treatment options. Some other treatment methods include:
- Liver transplant
- Ablation therapy: This is a procedure that can kill cancer cells in the liver without any surgery. The doctor can kill cancer cells using heat, laser, or injecting a special alcohol or acid directly into the cancer.
- Embolization: Blocking the blood supply to the cancer can be done using a procedure called embolization. Starving the cancer of the blood supply prevents the growth of the cancer. This technique is usually used on patients with large liver cancer for palliation.
- Radiation therapy
So, keep an eye out for these, we don’t want to lose our loved ones too early. Take care!
by Hridya Anand
A biochemist by education who could never put what she studied to good use, finally found GetDoc as a medium to do what she loved - bring information to people using a forum that is dedicated to all things medical. View all articles by Hridya Anand.