liver location and lobes
Anatomy of the liver

What is liver cancer?

Cancer is a disease that happens when abnormal cells grow too quickly and leave less space for normal cells.

Liver cancer can be classified in two ways. Primary liver cancer is one that starts in the tissue of the liver. The most common type of primary liver cancer is called hepatocellular carcinoma. The number of cases of primary liver cancer in the United States has been increasing over the years.

Secondary liver cancer is cancer that started in some other place in the body and moved to the liver. This type is also called metastatic liver cancer.

What does the liver do?

The liver is one of the most important organs in the body. The liver is divided into sections, called lobes, and acts as a filter for blood. It takes harmful substances out of the blood that are later passed out of the body as waste. The liver also:

  • Makes bile, a fluid that helps digest fat.
  • Digests and stores other nutrients from food like sugar, which is used for energy.
  • Makes substances used for many body functions, including ones that make your blood clot.

What are the risk factors for liver cancer?

A risk factor does not mean that you will develop a disease, but it does increase your chances of getting a disease. For liver cancer, risk factors include:

  • Having other liver diseases, including hepatitis B or C (viral diseases that attack the liver) or cirrhosis (a disease that causes scarring). Having a family history of liver diseases that can cause cirrhosis (liver diseases that run in families) is also a risk factor.
  • Having diabetes.
  • Being obese.
  • Being a man. Men are more likely to get liver cancer than women.
  • Drinking too much alcohol over a long period of time.
  • Being exposed to a type of poison made by moldy crops.

What are the signs and symptoms of liver cancer?

When liver cancer is in the early stages, you may have no symptoms at all. If your liver is swollen, you might notice the following symptoms: You may have:

  • A lump below the rib cage or pain on the right side of the abdomen, or pain near the right shoulder.
  • Jaundice (a disease that causes skin and eyes to yellow).
  • Unexplained weight loss, nausea, or loss of appetite.
  • Fatigue.
  • Dark-colored urine.
  • Bloating.

Remember, though, that liver cancer is only one of the reasons that a liver can be swollen.

What causes liver cancer?

You might get liver cancer from liver diseases like hepatitis. Having cirrhosis also increases your risk. However, some people who get liver cancer don’t have any other liver diseases. In many cases, the actual cause isn’t known.

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