Primary liver cancer is cancer that starts in the liver. The most common type of primary liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma, which occurs in the tissue of the liver. When cancer starts in other parts of the body and spreads to the liver, it is called liver metastasis.
When you get a diagnosis of cancer, it’s natural to wonder what may have caused the disease. Doctors can’t always explain why one person gets liver cancer and another doesn’t. However, we do know that people with certain risk factors may be more likely than others to develop liver cancer. A risk factor is something that may increase the chance of getting a disease. Studies have found the following risk factors for liver cancer:
The more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance that liver cancer will develop. However, many people with known risk factors for liver cancer don’t develop the disease.
Early liver cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms. When the cancer grows larger, people may notice one or more of these common symptoms:
These symptoms may be caused by liver cancer or other health problems. If you have any of these symptoms, you should tell your doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.
If you have symptoms that suggest liver cancer, your doctor will try to find out what’s causing the problems. You may have one or more of the following tests:
Your doctor feels your abdomen to check the liver, spleen, and other nearby organs for any lumps or changes in their shape or size. Your doctor also checks for ascites, an abnormal buildup of fluid in the abdomen. Also, your skin and eyes may be checked for signs of jaundice.
Many blood tests may be used to check for liver problems. One blood test detects alphafetoprotein (AFP). High AFP levels could be a sign of liver cancer. Other blood tests can show how well the liver is working.
An x-ray machine linked to a computer takes a series of detailed pictures of your liver and other organs and blood vessels in your abdomen. You may receive an injection of contrast material so that your liver shows up clearly in the pictures. On the CT scan, your doctor may see tumors in the liver or elsewhere in the abdomen.
A large machine with a strong magnet linked to a computer is used to make detailed pictures of areas inside your body. Sometimes contrast material makes abnormal areas show up more clearly on the picture.
The ultrasound device uses sound waves that can’t be heard by humans. The sound waves produce a pattern of echoes as they bounce off internal organs. The echoes create a picture (sonogram) of your liver and other organs in the abdomen. Tumors may produce echoes that are different from the echoes made by healthy tissues.
A biopsy usually is not needed to diagnose liver cancer, but in some cases, the doctor may remove a sample of tissue. A pathologist uses a microscope to look for cancer cells in the tissue.
Treatment options for people with liver cancer are surgery (including a liver transplant), ablation, embolization, targeted therapy, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. You may have a combination of treatments. The treatment that’s right for you depends mainly on the following:
Other factors to consider include your age, general health, and concerns about the treatments and their possible side effects.
At this time, liver cancer can be cured only when it’s found at an early stage (before it has spread) and only if people are healthy enough to have surgery. For people who can’t have surgery, other treatments may be able to help them live longer and feel better. Many doctors encourage people with liver cancer to consider taking part in a clinical trial. Clinical trials are research studies testing new treatments. They are an important option for people with all stages of liver cancer.
Your health care team can describe your treatment choices, the expected results of each, and the possible side effects. Because cancer therapy often damages healthy cells and tissues, side effects are common. Before treatment starts, ask your health care team about possible side effects and how treatment may change your normal activities. You and your health care team can work together to develop a treatment plan that meets your needs.