What is liver cancer?

Liver cancer is a type of malignant tumor that begins in the liver, the largest internal organ in the body. Most liver cancers develop from the cells in the liver called hepatocytes. These cancers are referred to as primary liver cancer. Rarely, they may develop from cells lining the bile duct or the blood vessels. Other cancers spread to the liver from another area, such as the colon, breast, or lung. These are referred to as metastatic cancers.

The liver is vital for several life functions, including the digestion of food, the collection and filtering of blood from the intestines, storing nutrients, metabolizing food into energy, helping the blood produce clotting factors, removing toxic waste from the body, and helping maintain the proper level of sugar in the body. A person cannot live without a liver.

Who gets liver cancer?

Anyone can get liver cancer, but some people are at higher risk. Risk factors for liver cancer include:

  • Cirrhosis: Liver cancer is usually preceded by a condition called cirrhosis, a disease in which scar tissue replaces damaged liver cells. Cirrhosis can be the result of hepatitis B or C infection, heavy alcohol use, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and autoimmune liver disorders.
  • Infection with hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV): Infection with HBV or HCV is the main cause of liver cancer. It often develops after many years of infection with either of these viruses.
  • Aflatoxin: Liver cancer can be caused by aflatoxin, a harmful substance made by certain types of mold. This toxic substance can form on nuts and grains, including peanuts and corn. High levels of aflatoxin are rare in the United States due to safety regulations. They are more common in parts of Asia and Africa.
  • Iron storage disease: Liver cancer may occur in people who have a disease that causes the body to store too much iron in organs, including the liver.
  • Heavy alcohol use: This is a risk factor because alcohol abuse is linked to cirrhosis.
  • Obesity and diabetes: Studies have shown that obesity and diabetes may be risk factors for liver cancer as these may lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and cirrhosis.

What are the different types of liver cancer?

There are three main types of liver cancer. These are:

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC): This is the most prevalent type of liver cancer, accounting for close to 90% of cases. Almost 80% of patients diagnosed with HCC will have underlying cirrhosis.
  • Cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer): This cancer grows in the bile duct of the liver. This narrow tube extends from the liver to the small intestine. It accounts for about 9% of liver cancers.
  • Angiosarcoma: This rare kind of liver cancer accounts for only about 1% of cases. It is an aggressive, rapidly growing cancer that starts in the blood vessels of the liver.

What are the symptoms of liver cancer?

Liver cancer often does not cause symptoms until it has reached an advanced stage. Symptoms that may become apparent include:

  • A bloated or swollen abdomen
  • A lump or a heavy feeling in the upper abdomen
  • Loss of appetite and feelings of fullness
  • Weight loss
  • Feeling weak or very tired
  • Yellow skin and eyes, pale stools, and dark urine from jaundice

Many of these symptoms can be caused by a variety of health problems, with the exception of yellow skin or jaundice. This is a strong symptom of a problem with the liver. If you notice any of these symptoms, you should consult your physician as soon as possible.

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