It’s easy to forget about your liver when it’s healthy. But serious problems, including cancer, can strike this large organ. Your liver has more than 300 functions, such breaking down nutrients, secreting bile, and regulating the levels of certain chemicals in your body. Liver cancer can affect some of these processes, cause uncomfortable symptoms, and in some cases, be life threatening. However, effective treatments are available for many types of liver cancer. The more you understand about liver cancer, the better prepared you’ll be to make informed decisions about your care.
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Understanding the Basics of Liver Cancer
Primary liver cancer is cancer that originates in the liver. The most common form of primary liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma, which occurs in a type of liver cells called hepatocytes.
Liver cancer signs and symptoms
Hepatocellular carcinoma doesn’t often cause symptoms in its early stages, but signs of the disease can include:
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Light-colored stools
- Yellow discoloration of the skin and eyeballs (known as jaundice)
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Liver Cancer Causes and Risk Factors
You’re more likely to develop this form of liver cancer if you have:
- Chronic hepatitis B or C
- Cirrhosis (liver damage)
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
Consuming large quantities of alcohol and being obese can also raise your risk of hepatocellular carcinoma. Sometimes, liver cancer can spread, or metastasize to other parts of the body.
Secondary liver cancer occurs when cancer starts in another part of the body and spreads to the liver. Many types of cancer can metastasize to the liver, including cancer of the breast, colon, kidney, lung, pancreas, and stomach. In some cases, this metastasis can occur years after the original cancer has been diagnosed and treated.
Know Your Liver Cancer Treatment Options
If your physician suspects that you have liver cancer, he or she may order certain imaging tests to get a better view of your liver, such as a CT scan, MRI scan, or abdominal ultrasound. These tests can help show the size and location of the tumor and whether or not it has spread. A blood test and biopsy can give your doctor further information about liver cancer.
Depending on your particular situation, your physician may recommend one or more types of treatment. These can include:
Liver cancer surgery
Known as a liver resection, surgery can remove the tumor, depending on its size and location. Minimally invasive liver resection, which is performed through several small incisions in the abdomen, can reduce pain, scarring, and improve your recovery. If your tumor is too large to be removed surgically, your physician may recommend other therapies, such as:
Radio frequency ablation for liver cancer
This technique uses ultrasound imaging to guide a probe through liver tissue and into the tumor. The probe delivers high-frequency alternating electrical current precisely at the site of the tumor. The current generates heat that literally burns out the tumor.
Transarterial chemoembolization (TACE) and internal radiation with yttrium-90 spheres for liver cancer
These approaches can be used in the case of inoperable tumors that have are confined to the liver and for bile duct, colon, or rectal cancer that has spread to the liver. They can help shrink your tumor so surgery is possible or simply manage liver cancer and possibly extend your life.
Your physician can talk to you about your treatment options and give you additional details about living with liver cancer.
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations in central and western Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals.