Liver Cancer Stages And Symptoms
One of the World fourth most common deadly illnesses is cancer; cancer can be in different stages and types. But according to U.S. death rates from liver cancer have risen steadily since 2000, accounting for 782,000 deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization.
The liver is the largest glandular organ in the body and performs various critical functions to keep the body free of toxins and harmful substances. It’s located in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen, right below the ribs.
The liver is responsible for producing bile, which is a substance that helps you digest fats, vitamins, and other nutrients. This vital organ also stores nutrients such as glucose, so that you remain nourished at times when you’re not eating. It also breaks down medications and toxins. When cancer develops in the liver, it destroys liver cells and interferes with the ability of the liver to function normally.
What Is Liver Cancer
Liver cancer is cancer that begins in the tissues of the liver. This type of cancer includes hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and the less common, bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma), according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
Liver cancer is generally classified as primary or secondary. Primary liver cancer begins in the cells of the liver. Secondary liver cancer develops when cancer cells from another organ spread to the liver.
The NCI estimates there was 42,220 cases of liver cancer in 2018 and 30, 200 deaths. Between 2008 and 2014, approximately 17.7 percent of people diagnosed with liver cancer survived past five years. Around 1 percent of people will be diagnosed with this cancer at some point in their lifetime, according to the NCI. The rates of liver cancer diagnoses have been increasing by 2.6 percent every year for the past 10 years.
Symptoms of Liver Cancer?
Most people in the early stages of primary liver cancer do not experience any signs or symptoms.” When symptoms do appear, they may include:
- Abdominal discomfort, pain, and tenderness
- Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, which is called jaundice
- White, chalky stools
- Bruising or bleeding easily
Liver Cancer Diagnosis & Tests
The diagnosis of liver cancer begins with a medical history and a physical examination. Make sure to tell your doctor if you have a history of long-term alcohol abuse or a chronic hepatitis B or C infection.
However, enlarged liver and abnormal liver function can be indicative of other liver diseases. The doctor will need to narrow down the diagnosis by performing further tests such as a liver biopsy, where a sample of the liver tissue is removed and examined for abnormal growth.
Doctors can also test for tumor markers, such as alpha-fetoprotein (AFP). AFP is a protein that’s usually produced by the fetus but can signal the presence of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) if it’s found in adults. AFP can also signal whether a person is pregnant or has other types of cancer.
If the patient is diagnosed with liver cancer, further tests might need to be done to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Liver Cancer Last Stage Treatment
Treatment for liver cancer varies. It depends on:
- The number, size, and location of the tumors in the liver
- How well the liver is functioning
- Whether cirrhosis is present
- Whether the tumor has spread to other organs.
The type of treatment will depend on the type and the stage of cancer being treated, according to the National Cancer Institute. The following list lists some of the possible treatment methods:
A hepatectomy is performed to remove either a portion of the liver or all of the liver. This surgery is usually done when the cancer is confined to the liver. Over time, the remaining healthy tissue will regrow and replace the missing part.
Ablation involves the use of heat or ethanol injections to destroy the cancer cells. It’s performed using local anesthesia. This numbs the area to prevent you from feeling any pain. Ablation can help people who aren’t candidates for surgery or a transplant.
Chemotherapy is an aggressive form of drug therapy that destroys cancer cells. The medications are injected intravenously, or through a vein. In most cases, chemotherapy can be given as an outpatient treatment. Chemotherapy can be effective in treating liver cancer, but many people experience side effects during treatment, including vomiting, decreased appetite, and chills. Chemotherapy can also increase your risk of infection.
Radiation therapy involves the use of high-energy radiation beams to kill cancer cells. It can be delivered by external beam radiation or by internal radiation. In external beam radiation, the radiation is aimed at the abdomen and chest. Internal radiation involves the use of a catheter to inject tiny radioactive spheres into the hepatic artery. The radiation then destroys the hepatic artery, a blood vessel that supplies blood to the liver. This decreases the amount of blood flowing to the tumor. When the hepatic artery is closed off, the portal vein continues to nourish the liver.
A liver transplant involves replacing the entire diseased liver with a healthy liver from a suitable donor. A transplant can only be done if the cancer hasn’t spread to other organs. Medicines to prevent rejection are given after the transplant.
Targeted therapy involves the use of medications that are designed to hit cancer cells where they’re vulnerable. They decrease tumor growth and help shut down blood supply to the tumor. Sorafenib (Nexavar) has been approved as targeted therapy for people with liver cancer. Targeted therapy can be helpful for people who aren’t candidates for a hepatectomy or liver transplant. However, targeted therapy can have significant side effects.
Liver Cancer Prevention
If the liver is damaged for a long time as a result of hepatitis, it can increase the risk of liver cancer. Vaccinations against hepatitis B have shown to be an effective way to prevent HCC, according to the NCI. (There is no vaccine to prevent against Hepatitis C).
Ways to avoid hepatitis C include avoiding IV drugs, practicing safe sex and only getting tattoos and piercings from clean, reputable shops, according to the Mayo Clinic. For some high-risk patients with chronic hepatitis B and C infections or cirrhosis screening could be an option.
- Learn more about liver transplants in this guide offered by the Mayo Clinic.