There are some cancers that may develop outside the liver and spread to the area. However, only cancers that begin in the liver are described as liver cancer. Therefore, liver cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the liver.
The liver is one of the largest organs of the human body. IT is located at the right lung and under the ribcage. It has a range of functions which are vital for survival of a person.
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Liver cancer consists of malignant hepatic tumors in or on the liver.
Symptoms of Liver cancer
You may not notice the signs and symptoms of liver cancer until the cancer reaches an advanced stage. Liver cancer may trigger the following effects:
- an enlarged liver
- abdominal pain
- unexplained weight loss
- back pain
Stages of Liver cancer
Liver cancer is classified into four stages. Staging a cancer allows a doctor to decide the course of treatment:
- Stage I:In this stage, the tumor is in the liver and has not spread to another organ or location.
- Stage II:There may be quite a few small tumors that all remain in the liver in this stage, or one tumor that has reached a blood vessel.
- Stage III:There are several large tumors or one tumor that has reached the main blood vessels. Cancer may have also extended to the gallbladder.
- Stage IV:The cancer has metastasized, meaning it has spread to other parts of the body.
Once the stage has been established, a course of treatment can start.
Causes of Liver Cancer
The exact cause of liver cancer is not known. However, most cases are linked to scarring of the liver or cirrhosis.
Hepatitis C is the most common cause of liver cancer according to the American Cancer Society.
People with both hepatitis B and C have at a higher risk of developing liver cancer than other healthy individuals, as both forms of the disease can result in cirrhosis.
Some inherited liver diseases, such as hemochromatosis, cause cirrhosis and also increase the risk of liver cancer.
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Other risk factors for liver cancer development include:
Type 2 diabetes: People with diabetes, especially if they also have hepatitis, or regularly consume a lot of alcohol, are more likely to develop liver cancer.
Family history: If a person’s mother, father, brother, or sister has had liver cancer, the person has a higher risk than others of developing the cancer themselves.
Excessive intake of alcohol: Consuming alcohol regularly and in large amounts is one of the leading causes of cirrhosis in the U.S.
Long-term exposure to aflatoxins: An aflatoxin is a substance made by a fungus. It can be found in moldy wheat, groundnuts, corn, nuts, soybeans, and peanuts. The risk of liver cancer only increases following long-term exposure. This is less of a problem in industrialized nations.
Low immunity: People with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS have a risk of liver cancer that is five times greater than other healthy individuals.
Obesity: Being obese raises the risk of developing many cancers, including liver cancer.
Gender: More men get liver cancer compared to women because more males tend to smoke and drink alcohol compared to females.
Smoking: Individuals with hepatitis B or C face a higher risk of liver cancer if they smoke.
Arsenic: People who rely on water wells that contain naturally-occurring levels of the toxin arsenic may eventually have a significantly higher risk of developing several conditions or diseases, including liver cancer.
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High-risk individuals for liver cancer should have regular screenings for liver cancer. Liver cancer, if not diagnosed early, is much more difficult to cure. The only way to know whether you have liver cancer early on is through screening because symptoms are either slight or nonexistent.
This includes people with hepatitis B and C, patients with alcohol-related cirrhosis, and those that have cirrhosis as a result of hemochromatosis.
For people who have early-stage liver cancer that can be treated, only surgery that removes the tumors completely will lead to a chance of recovery.
Surgical options include the following:
When the tumor is small and occupies a small part of the liver, that part of the liver can be removed surgically.
Many people with liver cancer have cirrhosis, this means that a hepatectomy may be performed to leave behind enough healthy tissue for the liver to perform its necessary functions after the procedure.
The procedure may be canceled halfway through if the risk to the patient is considered to be too great for the patient.
Partial hepatectomy is only considered for people with otherwise healthy liver function. This procedure is often not an option, as the cancer has spread to other parts of the liver or other organs in the body.
Liver surgery of this scale can cause excessive bleeding, blood-clotting issues, pneumonia, and infections.
For a patient to be deemed fit for liver transplant, they cannot have a tumor larger than 5 cm or several tumors larger than 3 cm. The risk of the cancer returning is too great to warrant a procedure as risky as a transplant if the tumor is larger than this.
With a successful transplant, the risk of cancer returning is greatly reduced, and normal function can be restored.
However, the immune system can ‘reject’ the new organ, and there are limited opportunities to carry out transplants. Only about 6,500 livers are available each year, and many are used to treat diseases other than liver cancer.
The drugs that suppress the immune system to accommodate a new liver can also lead to serious infections and, on occasion, even the spreading of already metastasized tumors.
Treatment for incurable tumors
The survival rate for advanced liver cancer is very low low. However, there are steps a medical team can take to treat cancer symptoms and slow the growth of the tumor.
- Ablative therapy:Substances are injected directly into the tumor, such as alcohol. Lasers and radio waves can also be used.
- Radiation therapy:Radiation is targeted at the tumor(s), killing a large number of them. Patients may experience fatigue, nausea, and vomiting.
- Chemotherapy: Medications are injected into the liver to destroy cancer cells. In chemoembolization, the blood supply to the tumor is blocked surgically or mechanically, and anti-cancer drugs are directed directly into the tumor.