Cancer that begins in the liver is called primary liver cancer. Though approximately 14,000 cases of primary liver cancer are diagnosed each year this type of cancer is considered relatively uncommon in the United States.
The majority of liver cancer diagnoses result from cancer originating elsewhere in the body and then spreading to the liver. When this happens, the cancer is referred to by the name of its original site (such as breast cancer, lung cancer, colon, etc) and as metastatic, meaning it has spread (e.g. metastatic breast cancer). The metastasized cancer may also be referred to as secondary liver cancer.
Facts About Liver Cancer
Following are some facts about liver cancer:
- Primary liver cancer is twice as common in men than in women.
- In contrast to many other types of cancer, the number of people who develop primary liver cancer is increasing.
- Asian Americans have the highest rate of primary liver cancer in the United States.
The exact causes of primary liver cancer have not been determined. However, the following risk factors can make you more likely to develop it:
- Chronic liver infection, particularly with Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C
- Family history of liver cancer
- Over age 60
- Alcohol and tobacco use
- Use of anabolic steroids
- Cancer elsewhere in the body
Symptoms of Liver Cancer
- Unexplained weight loss
- Ongoing lack of appetite
- Feeling very full after a small meal
- Ongoing stomach pain
- Swelling in the area of the stomach
- Jaundice (yellow discoloration of the skin or whites of the eyes)
- Becoming sicker if you have chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis
These symptoms may be caused by other illnesses also. If you have any of these symptoms, consult your primary care physician to determine the cause.
Detecting Liver Cancer
A blood test known as an alpha fetal protein level (AFP) may be elevated in patients with primary liver cancer. CT scans, MRIs, and ultrasounds may be used to see an image of the liver enabling a radiologist to identify tumors. If liver cancer is suspected, your physician may also order a liver biopsy.
Surgical removal of liver tumors or liver transplant offers the best chances of a cure. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the tumors are inoperable for more than two-thirds of patients with primary liver cancer and 90% of patients with secondary liver cancer.
Interventional radiology procedures offer non-surgical ways to shrink tumors and reduce pain. Imaging techniques are used to guide catheters to tumors, provided the vehicle to damage or destroy the tumor using chemotherapy, injected radiation beads, radiofrequency energy and microwave energy. In rare instances ablating smaller tumors can be curative. In most instances these procedures reduce symptoms and lengthen patients’ lives. Please see separate sections for more information on these procedures.