Liver Cancer – Early Signs, Symptoms & Possible Treatment Options

Learn more about liver cancer, including information about getting diagnosed, the different types and stages of liver cancer, and treatment.

What is Liver Cancer?

Liver cancer is a form of cancer that starts in the liver cells.

Liver Cancer – Early Signs, Symptoms & Possible Treatment Options
Liver cancer describes malignant tumors that first appear in or on the liver. Shutterstock Images

The liver is located in the upper right area of the abdomen just above the stomach and below the diaphragm.

The most common form of this cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma, which starts in the primary liver cell type called hepatocyte.

The other types of cells can also develop cancer but are rare.

Take note that not all cancers affecting the liver are considered liver cancer.

It is called primary liver cancer when cancer begins in the liver.

In some cases, it begins in other areas of the body like the lung and colon then, later on, spread to the liver, which is called metastatic cancer.

It is named after whichever organ it began like metastatic breast cancer which describes cancer that begins in the breast and spreads to the liver.

Liver Cancer Signs and Symptoms


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  • Abdominal pain in the liver area.
  • Jaundice or yellowish eyes and skin.
  • White chalky stools[1].
  • Itchiness caused by jaundice.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Abdominal swelling.
  • Appetite loss causing weight loss.

Liver Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Primary liver cancer or hepatocellular carcinoma typically occurs in livers that are damaged from birth defects, chronic infection, alcohol abuse and cirrhosis[2].

More than 50% of individuals diagnosed with primary liver cancer suffer from cirrhosis, which is commonly caused by alcohol abuse.

Hemochromatosis and hepatitis B and C can damage the liver permanently leading to failure[3].

Liver cancer is also known to be connected to fatty liver disease and obesity.

Here are factors that increase risk of primary liver cancer:

  • Chronic infection (HBV or HCV)
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Diabetes
  • Some forms of liver diseases that are inherited
  • Cirrhosis
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease[4]
  • Obesity
Liver Cancer Causes

Obesity can be one of the biggest reasons for liver cancer. Shutterstock Images

Types of Liver Cancer

  • Hepatocellular Carcinoma (HCC): It accounts for about 75% of all liver cancers. It begins in the main type of liver cells (hepatocellular cells) and it is usually caused by liver cirrhosis from alcohol abuse or hepatitis B or C infection[5].
  • Fibrolamellar HCC: This is a rare form of HCC that is more responsive to treatment compared to other types of liver cancer[6].
  • Cholangiocarcinoma or Bile Duct Cancer: It accounts for about 10 to 20% of all liver cancers. When it begins in the ducts within the liver, it is called intrahepatic bile duct cancer but when it develops in ducts located outside the liver it is called extrahepatic bile duct cancer.
  • Angiosarcoma or Hemangiosarcoma: This starts in the blood vessels of the liver then it grows rapidly, so it is usually diagnosed in the later stages of cancer[7].
  • Secondary Liver Cancer: This is when the cancer starts in another part of the body but spreads into the liver.

Tests and Diagnosis For Liver Cancer

The tests and procedures for diagnosing liver cancer are:

  • Blood Tests: This will reveal abnormalities of the liver’s function.
  • Imaging Tests: This includes ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging and computerized tomography scan.
  • Liver Biopsy: A sample of liver tissue is removed for examination under a microscope.

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A biopsy means removing a sample of your cells & observed under a microscope to understand their growth rate correctly. Shutterstock Images

Treatments and Medications For Liver Cancer

Here are the most common treatment options for liver cancer:

  • Surgery: The portion of the liver with cancer is removed including a healthy portion that surrounds it.
  • Liver Transplant: The diseased liver is removed then it is replaced with a healthy liver from a donor.
  • Freezing Cancer Cells: Extreme cold will be used for destroying cancer cells. This is called cryoablation[8] wherein a cryoprobe is used to inject liquid nitrogen into liver tumors. Ultrasound imaging is used to guide for guiding the cryoprobe and monitoring the procedure.
  • Radiofrequency Ablation: Cancer cells are heated using electric current destroying cancer cells. An ultrasound or CT scan is used as a guide.
  • Alcohol Injection: Pure alcohol is injected into tumours directly causing cancer cells to die.
  • Chemoembolization: This is a type of chemotherapy treatment wherein strong anti-cancer drugs are injected directly to the liver to kill cancer cells[9].
  • Radiation Therapy: High powered energy beams are used for destroying cancer cells and shrinking tumours.
  • Targeted Drug Therapy: Targeted drugs interfere with the ability of the tumour to grow. This helps slow or stop advanced hepatocellular carcinoma from developing for several weeks longer.

Precautions and Self Care

Alternative treatments can be used but only for controlling pain.

This includes acupressure, acupuncture, relaxation techniques, and music therapy.

It is essential to learn about liver cancer and the specific type of the disease to make the necessary decisions in regards to treatment.

There are coping groups for cancer wherein you can learn from others that are going through or have gone through what you are currently experiencing.

This will help you cope and in some cases, can help you prepare for what will happen in the future.

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