Liver Cancer Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
Liver cancer, also known as hepatic cancer, is a rarer illness, with fewer than 200,000 cases among Americans each year. Most cancers that involve the liver are metastatic cancers, meaning they spread from another organ to the liver. However, cancer can begin in the cells of the liver, which is what we know as liver cancer. Liver cancer can take a few different forms, but the most common type is hepatocellular carcinoma, which forms in hepatocytes.
Like other forms of cancer, patients that get liver cancer typically have a DNA change to the cells within their liver. When DNA mutations occur, so people may have cells that grow out of control and form tumors in their liver. Unfortunately, the cause of liver cancer isn't discovered for all patients, but certain lifestyle factors and prior illnesses can put you at higher risk of developing liver cancer.
Some risk factors for hepatic cancer include:
- Genetic liver diseases - Unfortunately, rarer genetic illnesses like Wilson's disease can put certain patients at higher risk.
- Excessive amounts of alcohol - If you drink more than the suggested amount per day based on your gender, you might be putting yourself at higher risk for developing liver cancer.
- Cirrhosis - Cirrhosis, which is just another term for liver scarring, is typically caused by disease or excessive alcohol consumption.
- Aflatoxins - Aflatoxins are created by a fungus that can grow in foods like peanuts and wheat. Frequent exposure or consumption of aflatoxins can raise your risk.
- Diabetes - Particularly with Type 2 Diabetes, diabetes has been linked to liver cancer. This is due to many diabetes patients being overweight or obese.
- Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C infection - If you have a chronic viral infection of the liver, you are at a greater risk of getting liver cancer. Hepatitis B or HBV is a viral infection that typically resolves in a few months. It is quite unlikely to become a carrier of HBV. In developing nations, HBV is one of the more common causes of cirrhosis. Hepatitis C, or HCV, is a common cause of cirrhosis in the United States. HBV is more likely to cause symptoms, but HCV tends to be chronic and even lifelong.
- Fatty liver disease- Common in people with obesity, fatty liver disease can cause scar tissue to form.
- Your sex - Most likely due to a mix of lifestyle and genetic factors, men are significantly more likely than women to get liver cancer. However, certain types of liver cancer are more common in women.
- Racial identity - Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are at a higher risk of developing liver cancer than other races. Caucasians are the group least likely to develop hepatic cancer.
- Obesity - Obesity can be a contributing factor to fatty liver disease, so it's best to keep the pounds off as best you can.
- Anabolic steroids - Illegal in the United States, anabolic steroids can raise your risk for hepatic cancer.
- Genetic metabolic diseases - If you have conditions that make you absorb too much iron from your food, you could be at higher risk of developing liver cancer.
- Tobacco use - Like most diseases, smokers and former smokers have a bigger chance of developing liver cancer.
- Exposure to Thorotrast- Even though Thorotrast is no longer commonly used, it's important to avoid exposure to it if possible.
For most patients, early-stage liver cancer seldom has symptoms.
If a patient does develop liver cancer symptoms, they may include:
- Sudden weight loss
- White or chalky stools
- Pain in the upper abdomen
- Nausea and vomiting
- Enlarged liver or spleen (feeling fullness under the ribs)
- Loss of appetite
- Weakness and fatigue
- Swelling around stomach
- Feeling full after a light meal
There are multiple ways to diagnose liver cancer, including a panel of blood tests. Some patients are diagnosed through MRIs, ultrasounds, or CT scans. These types of scans can help detect any tumors that may have formed. Sometimes a definitive diagnosis of liver cancer can only be made by taking a sample of liver tissue during a biopsy.
Surgery may be an option for those with a tumor. You may also be eligible for a liver transplant if your cancer has progressed past a treatable stage. Radiation therapy is also available to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. Chemotherapy drugs can be injected into the liver, as well as pure alcohol. Pure alcohol actually helps to kill the tumor cells. Radiation beads can also be placed directly into the liver.
Extreme cold and extreme heat can also kill hepatic cancer cells, depending on the stage of your cancer. Your treatment options will depend on the stage of your cancer, as well as your age, sex, and other health factors.
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