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Liver Cancer: Questions and Answers

By on March 3, 2012 in Diseases with 0 Comments

  1. Where is the liver and what is its function?The liver is a large organ located on the right side of the abdomen and is protected by the housing of the chest. The liver has many functions. It plays a role in converting food into energy. It also filters and stores blood.
  2. What is liver cancer?Liver cancer is a disease in which liver cells become abnormal, grow out of control and form a cancerous tumor. This type of cancer is called primary liver cancer. Primary liver cancer is also called malignant hepatoma or hepatocellular carcinoma. Very young children may develop another form of liver cancer known as hepatoblastoma.Cancer that spreads to the liver from another part of the body (metastatic cancer) is not the same as primary liver cancer. This fact sheet deals with primary liver cancer in adults. For information on hepatoblastoma or cancer that has spread to the liver from another area, contact the Information Service on Cancer (CIS) of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the telephone number is listed below.
  3. What are the risk factors for liver cancer?The development of liver cancer is thought to be related to the infection of hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV). Scientists believe that 10 to 20 percent of those infected with HBV will develop liver cancer. We find evidence of infection with hepatitis B virus in nearly a quarter of Americans with liver cancer. The exact relationship between HCV and liver cancer is being studied.Researchers have found that people with certain other liver diseases have a higher than average chance of developing primary liver cancer. For example, from 5 to 10 percent of people with liver cirrhosis (a progressive disorder that leads to scarring of the liver) eventually develop liver cancer. New research suggests that lifestyle factors such as alcohol consumption and malnutrition, can cause both cirrhosis and liver cancer.

    Aflatoxins, a group of chemicals produced by a fungus that can contaminate certain foods, like peanuts, corn, grain and seeds, are carcinogenic (cancer causing agents) of liver cancer.

  4. What are the symptoms of liver cancer?Primary liver cancer is difficult to detect at an early stage because early symptoms are usually vague. As with other cancers, this disease can cause a general feeling of poor health. Liver cancer can lead to loss of appetite, weight loss, fever, fatigue and weakness.As the cancer grows, pain may be present in the upper abdomen on the right side and may extend to the back and shoulder. Some people may feel a mass in the upper abdomen. Liver cancer can also lead to inflammation of the abdomen and a feeling of fullness or bloating. Some people have episodes of fever and nausea or develop jaundice, a condition in which the skin and whites of the eyes turn yellow and the urine becomes dark.

    It is important to note that these symptoms may be caused by primary or metastatic cancer in the liver, a benign (not cancer) in the liver or other less serious conditions. Only a doctor can tell for sure.

  5. How is the liver cancer diagnosed?To make a diagnosis of liver cancer, the doctor notes the medical history, a physical examination and order some careful analysis.
    • Blood tests are used to see how well the liver is functioning. They can also be used to check for tumor markers, which are substances often found in abnormal amounts in patients with liver cancer. The tumor marker alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) may be useful to aid in the diagnosis of liver cancer. About 50 to 70 percent of people with primary liver cancer have elevated levels of AFP. However, other cancers such as germ cell cancer and in some cases, cancer of the stomach and pancreas also cause elevated levels of AFP.
    • Radiographs of the chest and abdomen, angiograms (x-rays of blood vessels), the CT scans (X-ray set in order by a computer) and magnetic resonance images (images created by using a magnetic field) can all become part of the diagnostic process.
    • Liver scans using radioactive materials can help identify abnormal areas in the liver.
    • The presence of liver cancer is confirmed with a biopsy. Liver tissue (biopsy sample) is removed (using a needle or during surgery)  and examined under a microscope to see if cancer cells are present. The doctor may also look at the liver with an instrument called a laparoscope, which is a small instrument in a tube with a light on one end. For this procedure, an incision in the abdomen is made to insert the laparoscope. The doctor may remove a small piece of tissue during laparoscopic surgery. A pathologist then examines the tissue under a microscope to see if cancer cells are present.
  6. What is the treatment for liver cancer?Liver cancer is difficult to control unless the cancer is found early. However, treatment can relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life of patients. Treatment depends on the stage (or extent) of disease, the condition of the liver and the age and general health of the patient. Your doctor may recommend surgery, chemotherapy (treatment with anticancer drugs), radiotherapy (treatment with high-energy rays), biological therapy (treatment that uses substances that help the body fight the cancer) or a combination of treatments.
  7. Are treatment studies (clinical studies) available for patients with liver cancer?Treatment studies (clinical studies) are research studies designed to find more effective treatments and better ways to use current treatments. Participation in treatment studies is an option for many patients with liver cancer. In some studies, all patients receive the new treatment. In others, doctors compare different therapies by giving the new treatment to a group of patients and standard therapy to another group. In this way, doctors can compare different therapies.In studies of treatment for liver cancer, doctors study new anticancer drugs and drug combinations. They are also studying new ways of giving chemotherapy, such as placing the drugs directly into the liver. Other research approaches include cryotherapy (surgery that uses extreme cold to destroy cancer cells) and various combinations of standard treatments.

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