Understanding Liver Cancer Symptoms and Treatments
More than 42,000 adults in the U.S. are expected to be diagnosed with primary liver cancer this year. It is three times more prevalent in men than in women. Incidence of liver cancer has increased threefold since 1980, making it the most rapidly increasing type of cancer. However, it is not insurmountable.
It’s essential for patients to approach treatment with a positive attitude. They’ll need it to manage physical pain and fluctuating emotions. Building a network of support makes treatment and recovery more tolerable.
What Is Liver Cancer?
Your liver is the football-shaped organ between your diaphragm and stomach on the upper right side of your abdomen. It weighs around three pounds, and after skin, it’s the second-largest organ in the body.
In cooperation with the gallbladder, pancreas, and intestines, your liver plays a key role in digestion and efficient food processing. It also filters blood from the digestive tract before the blood is circulated through the body. The liver flushes toxins, metabolizes drugs, and manufactures proteins that aid in blood clotting and other vital functions.
Hepatocellular carcinoma, which grows in the cells of the liver, is the most common primary liver cancer. It’s far more usual for cancers that originate in other parts of the body, such as the lungs, colon, or breast, to spread to the liver through the bloodstream. When tumors grow too large, the liver malfunctions. Even benign tumors in the liver are usually surgically removed.
Hepatocellular cancer may begin as a single tumor or multiple tumors throughout the liver. People with a separate disease called cirrhosis usually have multiple tumors.
Other types of primary liver cancer include the following:
- Fibrolamellar HCC: It is rarer but has a higher likelihood of being treated successfully.
- Cholangiocarcinoma: This cancer starts in the bile ducts leading to the gallbladder. It accounts for one out of 10 cases of liver cancer.
- Angiosarcoma: Fortunately, this highly aggressive cancer is uncommon. It starts in the inner lining of the blood vessels and grows quickly. By the time it is diagnosed, the disease is usually in advanced stages.
- Hepatoblastoma: This is also a rare disease, and it typically affects children. If it’s detected early on, the survival rate is more than 90 percent.
In most cases, the cause of liver cancer is unknown. Certain hepatitis viruses sometimes result in cancer, or cancer might occur when cells undergo changes in their DNA. DNA issues the instructions for every chemical process in the body. When mutations take place, cells may grow unchecked and form tumors.
Here are some conditions that can increase the risk of developing primary liver cancer:
- Cirrhosis, a progressive disease marked by scar tissue in the liver
- Inherited conditions such as hemochromatosis, an excess of iron, and Wilson’s disease, an excess of copper
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
- Excessive alcohol consumption
Signs and Symptoms
In the earliest stages of primary liver cancer, it is rare to have symptoms. If they do manifest, they may include the following:
- Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite
- Weakness and fatigue
- Nausea and vomiting
- Upper abdominal pain or swelling
- White, chalky stools
See your doctor if any of these symptoms persist for more than a few days.
Common Treatment Options
If the cancer is caught early on and the rest of the liver is healthy, a partial hepatectomy may be in order. This treatment depends on the size of the tumor or tumors and how nearby blood vessels would be affected by surgery.
If the entire liver is unhealthy, a liver transplant is necessary. An oncologist may also advise a transplant if the tumor is located somewhere that makes a partial hepatectomy dangerous.
While patients wait for a healthy liver to become available, they undergo other treatments that slow the growth of the cancer. These methods are not as effective as removal, but they temporarily keep the disease in check.
Ablation shrinks or destroys tumors without removing them. A needle-like probe guided by ultrasound or a CT scan delivers heat, cold gasses, or concentrated alcohol to kill off tumors.
In this procedure, various substances are injected to reduce blood flow to the liver. Cancer cells must have blood to survive and grow.
Targeted therapy and chemotherapy
When changes in liver cells cause cancer, powerful drugs are introduced into the bloodstream. They target genes or proteins to stop cancer from growing and spreading.
The liver tends to resist standard chemo drugs. For liver cancer, the drugs used in targeted therapy have proven more effective.
The medicines used in immunotherapy encourage the patient’s immune system to find and attack the diseased cells.
Traditionally, high-energy rays delivered from outside the body target cancerous cells. Doctors sometimes inject small radioactive beads into the hepatic artery.
Recent studies of a traditional Chinese medicine called berbamine have shown extremely promising results. Berbamine is derived from a plant that’s been grown and used medicinally for centuries.
Dr. Wendong Huang and his research team at City of Hope National Medical Center in California found that berbamine-based compounds destroy liver cancer cells. Not only that, but they interfere with the malignant stem cells that instigate cancer in the first place. The research is strongly supported by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health.
Diet plays a key role in liver function. According to an evidence-based, fact-checked article published on Healthline, everyone should eat these foods to boost liver health:
- Coffee and green tea
- Cranberries and blueberries
- Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and mustard greens
- Fatty fish
- Olive oil
It goes without saying that drinking plenty of water is crucial.
Foods that interfere with liver function and encourage disease include the following:
- Sugary foods and high-fructose corn syrup
- Fried, greasy foods
- Foods high in sodium
In addition to alcohol, fast food, and processed foods are obviously the worst offenders. Eating right is one of the best preventative measures against liver cancer.