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Liver Cancer

A cancerous tumour that originates in the cells of the liver

  • More common with increasing age
  • Up to four times more common in males
  • Excess alcohol consumption and intravenous drug abuse are risk factors
  • Genetics is not a significant factor

Primary liver cancer is cancer of the liver tissue that originates within the liver itself. Tumours in the liver that originate elsewhere in the body are known as secondaries, or liver metastases.

Worldwide, liver cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer, accounting for about half of all cancer cases. However, in developed countries, the disease is less common, and most cases occur following long-standing cirrhosis due to long-term alcohol abuse.

In developing countries, liver cancer is closely linked with viral hepatitis, especially that due to the hepatitis B and C viruses (see Chronic hepatitis), which account for about 7 in 10 cases of liver cancer. People with haemochromatosis, a condition in which iron builds up in the liver, are also at high risk of developing liver cancer.

Another cause of liver cancer is -contamination of food by carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) such as aflatoxin, a toxin produced by a fungus that grows on stored grain and peanuts. Occasionally, liver cancer results from infection with a form of liver fluke (a parasitic worm) that is common in the Far East or exposure to certain chemicals in the workplace.

What are the symptoms?

People with liver cancer may experience the following symptoms:

  • Weight loss and fever.

  • Pain in the upper right side of the abdomen.

  • Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (see Jaundice).

As the disease progresses, the abdomen may become swollen because of an accumulation of fluid (ascites).

What might be done?

Your doctor may suspect liver cancer from your symptoms if you already have cirrhosis. You may have blood tests to look for signs of cancer and to assess liver function. Imaging tests, such as ultrasound scanning or MRI, may be performed to confirm the diagnosis. You may also have a liver biopsy, in which a piece of tissue is removed and tested for cancer cells.

Treatment depends on various factors, such as your general health and the stage of the cancer. If the cancer is not too advanced, surgical removal of the tumour or a liver transplant may be possible. In other cases, you may be given chemotherapy or localized treatments to reduce the size of the tumour, such as chemoembolization, in which the blood supply to the tumour is blocked, causing it to shrink.

What is the prognosis?

Often the cancer is at an advanced stage by the time it is diagnosed and the outlook is poor. Even for the few patients who are treated by surgery to remove the tumour or a liver transplant, only about 1 in 5 is still alive 5 years after treatment.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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