Liver cancer develops when cells in the liver become abnormal through cell mutation. Once the cells become abnormal, they begin to grow too quickly and build up. This accumulation forms a mass, or tumor. Malignant liver tumors have the ability to spread through the blood to other areas of the body. Hepatocellular carcinoma occurs when the tumor is found in the liver instead of another region of the body. When cancer has spread from another area of the body to the liver, the cancer is said to have metastasized, and it takes the name of the organ from which the cancer originated.
The body maintains a delicate balance of chemicals. The liver is the chemical regulator in the body, and any disturbance effects its ability to function properly. This balance is disturbed when a tumor develops. The body typically has mechanisms to sort out imbalances, but when too many imbalances occur, these overwhelmed functions can no longer be effective.
Almost all cases of liver cancer occur in patients who have cirrhosis, or who are infected with the hepatitis B or hepatitis C virus. Other contributing factors include alcohol abuse, the accumulation of too much iron in the liver (hemochromotosis), obesity, diabetes, and exposure to a certain type of mold found in decaying vegetation (aflatoxin). Men are more likely to develop liver cancer than women.
Early stages of liver cancer often do not have symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they are nonspecific and do not explicitly indicate a liver problem. These symptoms include:
Only a doctor can diagnose liver cancer. Individuals should expect to receive a physical exam and one or more of the following tests to help in diagnosis:Ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, blood tests, or a liver biopsy. There are different methods for performing liver biopsies, ranging from minimally invasive to open surgery.
Treatment for liver cancer is provided on a case-by-case basis. The stage and classification of the cancer will assist in determining which treatment is best suited for each patient. Surgery is the most effective treatment for liver cancer, although not all patients are eligible to undergo surgery. Other methods of treatment include: liver ablation, chemoembolization, radiation, and targeted therapy.
For more information on liver cancer treatment, please visit our Liver Therapies page.
Because liver cancer is often triggered by another underlying cause, it is important to seek preventative care. Receiving a hepatitis A vaccination and hepatitis B vaccination, proper nutrition, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding alcohol or drugs, avoiding unnecessary or excessive medicine, and avoiding unsanitary conditions may help prevent liver cancer. The more risk factors an individual has, the greater the chance that liver cancer will develop.
It is estimated that approximately 30,500 new cases of liver cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. every year. It is reported that more than 21,500 individuals die each year of liver cancer in the U.S. Liver cancer is about twice as prevalent in men than it is in women.