Liver cancer is a serious condition that affects millions of people worldwide and it is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. It is a condition that develops when abnormal cells grow uncontrollably in the liver, leading to the formation of a tumor.
While liver cancer can be challenging to detect in its early stages, it is essential to understand the symptoms, causes, and treatment options available to combat this disease.
Types of Liver Cancer
Liver cancer is broadly classified into two types: primary liver cancer and secondary liver cancer.
1. Primary liver cancer is cancer that originates in the liver. The most common type of primary liver cancer is –
- Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), accounts for about 75% of all cases. HCC develops in the hepatocytes, the main type of liver cell.The other types of primary liver cancer include –
- Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma – happens in the liver’s bile duct. It happens in 10 to 20% of the population.
- Angiosarcoma – It is a rare type of liver cancer that affects the blood cell lining in the liver. It happens to only 1% of the population worldwide.
2. Secondary liver cancer starts spreading from another part of the body to the liver. It is also known as liver metastases, which occurs when cancer cells from different parts such as the colon, breast, or lung, start spreading to the liver. This type of cancer is more common than primary liver cancer.
Causes and Risk Factors of Liver Cancer
Liver cancer is caused by changes in the DNA of liver cells, which leads to uncontrollable cell growth and the formation of tumors. DNA tells our cells when to grow, multiply, and die. For example, oncogenes help cells grow and divide, and tumor suppressor genes monitor cell activity in our body that keeps cells from uncontrollable division. Apart from this, several factors can increase the risk of developing liver cancer that includes chronic infection with hepatitis B or C virus, heavy alcohol consumption, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and exposure to aflatoxins, a type of toxin produced by a fungus that grows on spoiled foods.
Other factors that may increase the risk of liver cancer include obesity, type 2 diabetes, smoking, anabolic steroid use, and exposure to certain chemicals such as vinyl chloride and arsenic. Also, genetics plays an important role in some people causing an increased risk of developing liver cancer.
Symptoms of Liver Cancer
Liver cancer often does not cause any symptoms in its early stages. As cancer grows, it may cause symptoms such as:
- Abdominal pain or discomfort
- Swelling or fluid buildup in the abdomen
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- Fatigue and weakness
- Enlarged liver or spleen
These symptoms may also be caused by other conditions, so it is essential to consult a doctor for a proper diagnosis.
The tests and diagnosis of your symptoms conducted after your healthcare provider suspects you may have liver cancer during physical examination such as –
- Blood Tests – Your healthcare provider will check for specific proteins, enzymes, and other substances to find the presence of tumors.
- Ultrasound – It provides pictures of soft tissues for the identification of liver tumors.
- Computed tomography (CT) scan – It provides detailed images of the liver to help in finding the location and size of the tumor.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) – It uses magnetic radio waves to produce clear images of your body.
Stages of Liver Cancer
Once liver cancer is diagnosed, it is staged to determine the extent of the disease for providing the best treatment options. The stages of liver cancer are:
- Stage 1: The cancer is small and has not spread beyond the liver.
- Stage 2: Cancer has grown larger and may have spread to nearby blood vessels.
- Stage 3: Cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes or other organs.
- Stage 4: Cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, such as the lungs or bones.
Treatment Options for Liver Cancer
The treatment options for liver cancer depend on the stage of the disease, the size, and location of the tumor, and the overall health of the patient. The main treatment options for liver cancer include –
Surgery is the preferred treatment for early-stage liver cancer. The goal of surgery is to remove the cancerous tissue and prevent cancer from spreading inside the liver. A healthcare provider will determine the type of surgery based on the size and location of the tumor. For example, a partial hepatectomy involves removing a portion of the liver, while a liver transplant involves replacing the entire liver with a healthy liver from a donor.
2. Chemotherapy and Radiation Therapy
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are often used in combination with surgery or as a standalone treatment for liver cancer that has spread beyond the liver. Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, while in radiation therapy high-energy radiation is used to destroy cancer cells.
3. Liver Transplant
A liver transplant is an option for patients with liver cancer that has not spread beyond the liver and is also not a suitable candidate for surgery. For such patients, a liver transplant is performed where the entire liver is replaced with a healthy liver from a donor.
4. Palliative Care for Liver Cancer Patients
Palliative care aims to improve the quality of life of patients with advanced liver cancer. It is focused on managing symptoms such as pain, nausea, and fatigue and also providing emotional and spiritual support to patients and their families in this condition.
Prevention and Lifestyle Changes to Reduce the Risk of Liver Cancer
While some risk factors for liver cancer, such as genetics and age, cannot be controlled but several lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of developing liver cancer. These include –
- Getting vaccinated for hepatitis B
- Avoiding exposure to hepatitis C
- Moderating alcohol consumption
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Exercising regularly
- Following a healthy diet
- Avoiding exposure to toxins such as aflatoxins and chemicals
Liver cancer is a serious disease that requires prompt diagnosis and treatment. Understanding the symptoms, causes, and treatment options available for liver cancer is essential for managing this condition. If you experience any symptoms of liver cancer, it is essential to see a doctor for a proper diagnosis. Remember, early detection and treatment are key to improving the prognosis and increasing the chances of a successful outcome.