Thumbnail image of: Liver, Gallbladder, and Pancreas: Illustration

Liver Cancer

What is liver cancer?

Liver cancer is a growth of abnormal cells that form tumors in the liver. The cancer cells are able to grow in to the surrounding liver tissue and spread to other parts of your body.

The liver is one of the largest organs and a very important part of your body. Some of the functions of the liver include:

  • It helps your body get rid of some medicines and harmful substances.
  • It makes bile, which helps your body digest fats.
  • It stores sugar, which your body uses for energy.
  • It makes many proteins, which are the building blocks for all cells in your body.

The sooner cancer is found and treated, the better your chances for recovery. However, even advanced cancer can usually be treated. Treatment may slow or temporarily stop the growth of the cancer and ease symptoms. Ask your healthcare provider what you can expect with the type of cancer that you have.

What is the cause?

Cancer may start in the lungs, breasts, large intestine, or other organs and spread to the liver. Cancer may also start in the liver. The exact cause of cancer that starts in the liver is usually not known. However, the risk is increased if you have:

  • Chronic hepatitis B or hepatitis C
  • Liver scarring (cirrhosis). Cirrhosis is most often caused by alcohol abuse. Less often it is caused by liver disease, having too much iron in your body, or by having excess fat stored in the liver.
  • Been exposed to chemicals such as vinyl chloride or arsenic
  • Used anabolic steroids (male hormones) for a long time

What are the symptoms?

Signs and symptoms of liver cancer are:

  • Pain or discomfort on the right side, especially in the upper belly or around the right shoulder blade
  • A hard lump on the right side just below the rib cage
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • A swollen belly
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history, including symptoms and possible risk factors, and you will have a physical exam. You may have tests such as:

  • Blood tests, including tests that check how well the liver is working
  • An ultrasound, which uses sound waves to show pictures of the liver
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the liver
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the liver
  • Laparoscopy, which is a surgical procedure to look at the organs inside the belly
  • Liver biopsy, which may be done during a laparoscopy or with a needle passed through the skin to take a small sample of tissue for testing

How is it treated?

The treatment depends on whether the cancer started in the liver, or spread to the liver, and how much it has grown or spread. You and your healthcare provider will discuss possible treatments. You may also talk with a surgeon and a cancer specialist. Some things to think about when making treatment decisions are:

  • Your age
  • Your overall health
  • The stage of the cancer (how advanced the cancer is)
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body

Possible treatments are:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor and part of the liver
  • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells
  • Radio frequency ablation, which uses high-energy radio waves to kill cancer cells
  • Freezing the tumor with a probe to kill the cancer cells
  • Injecting alcohol or drugs into the tumor to destroy the tumor
  • Injecting chemicals into the liver artery to block blood flow to the tumor
  • Liver transplant for some types of cancer

Your treatment will also include:

  • Preventing infections
  • Controlling pain or other symptoms you may have
  • Controlling the side effects from treatments
  • Helping you manage your life with cancer

Often, more than 1 treatment is used. After successful treatment, liver cancer can come back, so you will need to have regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider.

Ask your healthcare provider about clinical trials that might be available to you. Clinical trials are research studies to find effective cancer treatments. It’s always your choice whether you take part in one or not.

How can I take care of myself?

If you have been diagnosed with liver cancer:

  • Talk about your cancer and treatment options with your healthcare provider. Make sure you understand your choices.
  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
  • Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

Other things that may help include:

  • Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise and rest.
  • Try to reduce stress and take time for activities that you enjoy. It may help to talk with a counselor about your illness.
  • Talk with your family and your healthcare providers about your concerns. Ask your healthcare provider any questions you have about the disease, treatments, side effects of the treatments, sexuality, support groups, and anything else that concerns you.
  • If you smoke, try to quit.
  • Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol. It may interfere with medicines you are taking. Alcohol can also make it harder for white blood cells to fight infections.
  • Tell your provider if your treatment causes discomfort. Usually there are ways to help you be more comfortable.
  • Try to keep a hopeful and positive outlook throughout your treatment and recovery.

How can I help prevent liver cancer from spreading or coming back?

  • Complete the full course of surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy treatments ordered by your healthcare provider.
  • See your healthcare provider right away if you notice a return of any previous symptoms, or you develop new symptoms.
  • Don’t abuse alcohol or illegal drugs.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-03-10
Last reviewed: 2014-03-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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