Deciphering Complex, Challenging Liver Cancer
What is liver cancer?
Liver cancer is characterized by malignant hepatic tumors in or on the liver. Liver cancer that starts in the liver — instead of spreading to the liver from another organ or section of the body — is known as primary liver cancer. Secondary liver cancer, or liver metastasis, occurs when cancers that begin in other parts of the body reach the liver.
The most common type of liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), and it tends to strike men more than women.
The liver is comprised of several different types of cells, from which a variety of tumors can form. Some tumors are benign (noncancerous); others are cancerous and can spread to other parts of the body (metastasize). These tumors have different causes and require different treatments.
The most common risk factors for liver cancer
Although risk factors should not be viewed as a certain cancer prediction, they can be used as important gauges. Knowing your risk factors can help you make lifestyle or health adjustments to lower your chances of developing liver cancer. Below are several risk factors that make a person more likely to develop liver cancer. They include:
- Gender – Men are more likely to develop liver cancer than women.
- Race/ethnicity – Asian Americans and U.S. Pacific Islanders log the highest rates of liver cancer, followed by American Indians/Alaska Natives and Hispanics/Latinos, African Americans, and Caucasians.
- Chronic viral hepatitis (Hep B or C) – Hep B and C can spread through shared contaminated needles (drug use), unprotected sex, or childbirth. People infected with both viruses have a high risk of developing chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.
- Cirrhosis – Linked to alcohol abuse and chronic HBV and HCV infections, cirrhosis is a disease in which liver cells become damaged and are replaced by scar tissue, which increases liver cancer risk.
- Smoking – Former smokers have a lower risk than current smokers, but both groups are at a higher risk for liver cancer than people who have never smoked.
- Heavy alcohol use – Alcohol abuse is a leading cause of cirrhosis, which is attributed to an increased risk of liver cancer.
- Obesity – Being obese (very overweight) increases the risk of developing liver cancer; likely due to obesity’s association with fatty liver disease and cirrhosis.
- Type 2 diabetes – This disease is linked to elevated liver cancer risk in patients who have other risk factors (heavy alcohol use and/or chronic viral hepatitis).
Is early detection of liver cancer possible?
Catching this type of cancer can be difficult, because symptoms often don’t reveal themselves until liver cancer is advanced. And because the liver is protected by the rib cage, tumors are most often not felt until they are large.
If you are in a high risk group for liver cancer, your doctor will likely recommend screenings through alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) blood tests and ultrasound exams every 6 to 12 months.
Know the signs of liver cancer
The signs and symptoms of liver cancer tend to stay hidden until the cancer is well advanced, but there are red flags to look for. Consult your doctor right away if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Jaundice – The skin, tongue and whites of the eyes become yellow
- Abdominal pain – Often felt on the right side, it may reach as high as the shoulder
- Enlarged liver – Manifesting in the abdomen appearing swollen
- Unexplained weight loss
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Chronic back pain
Treating liver cancer
Liver cancer staging (assessing the extent of the cancer in terms of the tumor size or how far the cancer has spread), will guide your doctor in forming your treatment plan. Your RCCA cancer care team will take you through every step of your plan, such as treatment goals, preparing for treatment and managing treatment side effects. Based on these factors, your treatment plan may include:
The expertise, resources and compassion to help you battle liver cancer
A liver cancer diagnosis is life-changing… for you and your loved ones. That makes it all the more vital that your care be advanced, your cancer care team be readily accessible, and your network of support be unfailing. At RCCA, these aspects of care, along with access to innovative clinical trials, are not “nice-to-haves” but rather “must-haves.” And they are the foundation of RCCA’s whole-person treatment philosophy.