What is Liver Cancer?

Liver cancer happens when abnormal cells in the liver grow and multiply out of control. Your liver is the largest organ inside your belly and carries out many important functions, such as:

  • Helping your body convert the vitamin D it receives from the sun into a form your body can use
  • Making steroids, which serve as the building blocks for certain hormones, like estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, and others
  • Storing extra sugar
  • Producing bile that your gallbladder uses to break down fat from the foods you eat
  • Manufacturing the cells your immune system needs to fight infections and keep you healthy

Each year in the United States, approximately 28,600 men and 12,660 women are diagnosed with liver and intrahepatic bile duct cancer, usually between 55 and 84 years of age.

A liver cancer diagnosis often begins with an observation of a growth on the liver. Generally, there are two types of growths  benign and malignant. Benign growths are non-cancerous, can be removed, are rarely life-threatening, and do not grow back. They also do not invade the tissues around them and do not spread to other parts of the body.

Malignant growths, on the other hand, are cancerous. They may be life-threatening, and even if they are removed, may still grow back. They can also spread and damage nearby tissues and organs such as the stomach or intestine and can spread to other parts of the body.

What Are Signs and Symptoms of Liver Cancer?

Signs and symptoms of liver cancer include the following:

  • Pain on the right side of the upper belly
  • A lump or feeling of heaviness in the upper abdomen
  • Swollen belly
  • Loss of appetite and feelings of fullness after having eaten very little food
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness or feeling very tired
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Jaundice — a condition that causes yellow skin and eyes, pale stools and dark urine
  • Fever

Please note that these signs and symptoms can occur in many other health problems — not just liver cancer. If you notice any of these issues, your best bet is to make an appointment with your doctor right away. Based on what your doctor finds, you might get a referral to a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specializes in disorders of the digestive tract.

How is Liver Cancer Treated?

Treatment options for liver cancer include one or more of the following:

  • Surgery (including a liver transplant) removes tumors
  • Ablation uses heat or radiation to destroy cancer cells
  • Embolization kills cancer cells by cutting off their blood supply
  • Targeted therapy uses special medications uniquely designed to attack only cancer cells in the body and nothing else
  • Radiation therapy uses high beams of energy to destroy tumors
  • Chemotherapy uses chemical-based medications to destroy cancer cells

Caught and treated early, there’s a good chance your doctor can treat your liver cancer.

Depending upon your condition, you may be a candidate for surgery. If you aren’t, as you can see, there are many other options that you and your doctor may try if you don’t qualify for surgery. Additionally, your doctor may recommend that you consider participating in clinical trials (in other words, research studies) that are trying out new treatments for patients like you.