Liver cancer is called hepatocellular carcinoma or primary liver cell carcinoma. Hepatocellular carcinoma is the cause of most liver cancers and originates in the liver. It differs from metastatic liver cancer that originates in other organs like the colon or breast and then spreads to the liver.
Who are at Risk?
Liver cancer occurs more in men than in women and in people between the ages of 50-60 years. Asia and Africa have greater prevalence of liver cancer than Europe, North or South America. The primary cause of liver cancer is cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis is caused mainly due to alcoholism, autoimmune diseases that affect the liver, diseases that result in inflammation of the liver, Hepatitis B or C infections and excessive iron in the body that is a condition called hemochromatosis.
Patients who suffer from hepatitis B or C run the risk of developing liver cancer even though they do not have cirrhosis.
Symptoms of Liver Cancer
Unfortunately early liver cancer symptoms are often vague. Hence, by the time the diagnosis is made, the cancer could have spread and the prognosis very poor.
Weight loss: The patient feels fatigued and suffers from a loss of appetite that can last longer than a week. This leads to weight loss. These vague signs are the first liver cancer symptoms.
Abdominal Pain: Tenderness can be felt in the upper-right part of the abdomen. Some people experience pain and can feel a lump and a swelling of the abdomen. Sometimes the abdomen becomes enlarged although you are actually experiencing a loss of appetite and weight loss.
Jaundice: This causes the whites of the eyes and the skin to turn yellowish or jaundiced. Jaundice occurs due to any illness that affects the proper functioning of the liver such as cirrhosis or hepatitis B or C (both causes of liver cancer). Jaundice causes bilirubin to build-up in the body tissues and blood.
• The patient feels full even if they eat small quantities of food
- A nauseous feeling that causes you to vomit
- Skin feels itchy
- A tired, weak and listless feeling
- Patient suffers from high temperature, similar to a flu, of over 100.4 F
- Patients start to bruise easily and even bleed
What to do?
Since the initial liver cancer symptoms are vague, identifying the risk factors is critical. Anyone who comes under the high risk category and experiences these symptoms must immediately get tested and treated.
Tests for liver cancer
Detecting early liver cancer is difficult. Hence, the doctor will conduct a physical exam to check for lumps in the abdomen and then order a series of tests.
Blood tests will be done to measure alpha-fetoprotein levels. The levels are usually high in most liver cancer cases. Imaging tests such as ultrasonography, CT scan and MRI of the abdomen at times reveal the existence of hepatocellular carcinoma that have not yet caused obvious symptoms. If these tests are still inconclusive, a dye is injected into the hepatic artery of the liver and an X-ray taken of this region. This helps to pinpoint the precise location of the blood vessels and aids the doctor during surgery to remove the cancer.
A final test could be a liver biopsy or a laparoscopy to confirm the diagnosis. Once it has been determined the patient has liver cancer, staging will be done based on the size of the cancer and the extent it has spread.
Treatment for liver cancer
Treatment is given based on the stage of the liver cancer and the overall health and age of the patient. The prognosis for liver cancer is usually poor and only 10-20% of them can be completely removed with surgery. If it cannot be removed, liver cancer is usually fatal within 6 months.
If the liver cancer is in Stage A (initial stage) and has not spread, a complete cure is possible and treatment can take three forms. A resection will be done when the entire portion of the liver that has been affected will be removed. A liver transplant can be done and the diseased liver replaced by a healthy one. Finally, radiofrequency ablation can be done when heat is used to kill the cancer cells.
If the cancer is in stage B or C, cure is extremely slim. If the patient suffers from cirrhosis, chemotherapy, that is usually given to kill cancer cells, can be extremely damaging to the liver. If chemotherapy is used, it will be injected directly into the blood vessel that connects to the tumor. Other medications can be given to prolong life and help the patient manage the liver cancer symptoms. These treatments can slightly slow down the cancer and prolong life for a few months.
In stage D, the cancer would have spread too far for any treatment to have effect. Treatment will only be offered to relive immediate symptoms such as discomfort or pain and not to cure the cancer.
Some doctors may recommend alternative medicine for advanced stages of liver cancer when conventional treatment is not possible. This helps to provide some degree of comfort and not to cure the cancer. Some forms of alternative treatment are acupressure, acupuncture, deep breathing, music therapy and massage.
Liver cancer : Prevention and Precaution
Since the prognosis for liver cancer symptoms are generally not positive, it is important to adopt the best possible preventive measures to reduce the risks of contracting this deadly illness. There are three ways you can achieve this. Drink moderate quantities of alcohol to avoid damaging your liver. Do not exceed your recommended daily amounts of alcohol and if you can completely give it up, it is the best way to have a healthy liver.
You must always eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly to avoid obesity and other related illnesses like cardiovascular diseases. Avoid exposure to Hepatitis B and C virus. Drug users are susceptible to hepatitis C especially if they use common needles or if a person has unprotected sex with an infected person.
In countries where hepatitis B is prevalent, there is a vaccine available to protect people in the high risk group.
Liver cancer is a life-threatening illness and being diagnosed with it can be devastating for both patient and family members. There are many cancer support groups available and getting in touch can provide the emotional and psychological help one needs. Depending on the stage of the cancer and prognosis, you can take a call about your long-term care, inform your family members, talk to friends or family who are close and make plans for both your care and the future of your family.