Liver Cancer Awareness Month: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment
by Jane Meggitt
October is Liver Cancer Awareness Month. Making certain lifestyle changes can lower the risk of liver cancer. Raising liver cancer awareness includes explaining risk factors and potentially preventing this disease.
The liver is the body’s largest internal organ. Its tasks involve filtering harmful substances from the blood and storing sugar for use as energy. It also creates bile which aids the gastrointestinal system in fat digestion.
Liver cancer begins in the cells of the liver. In adults, there are two primary types: Hepatocellular carcinoma and cholangiocarcinoma. Hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common form and occurs most often in those battling chronic liver diseases. The cancer begins in cells known as hepatocytes.
Cholangiocarcinoma is actually bile duct cancer, but some of these ducts are within the liver.
Note that several types of cancers tend to metastasize to the liver. These include breast, colon, melanoma, pancreatic, kidney and lung cancers. A cancer may have spread to the liver, that does not make it liver cancer. The incidence of actual liver cancer is lower than cancers that have spread to the organ from elsewhere in the body.
Liver Cancer Awareness Month
In 2021, about 42,230 people will receive a liver cancer diagnosis in the U.S. Roughly two-thirds of those cases are in men and one-third in women. Approximately 30,000 people will die from the disease. In the past 40 years, liver cancer rates have tripled and death rates doubled.
By providing information on prevention and treatment, Liver Cancer Awareness Month aims to lower the number of cases and encourage those with symptoms to seek medical help. Early detection can lead to a better outcome.
Liver Cancer Risk Factors
Excessive alcohol consumption is a frequent contributing factor in liver cancer. Smoking also increases liver cancer risk, as does obesity. The use of anabolic steroids may contribute to hepatocellular carcinoma.
Those with chronic hepatitis B or C infections have a higher risk of developing liver cancer. The same holds true for patients diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and inherited liver diseases such as Wilson’s disease. While heavy drinking can lead to cirrhosis, so can long-term hepatitis infections. Preventive measures include getting a hepatitis B vaccine. People with diabetes and other metabolic disorders are more likely to develop liver cancer than non-diabetics.
In the U.S., Asian American and Pacific Islanders have high rates of liver cancer. So do those of Hispanic or Native American descent.
Liver Cancer Symptoms
Symptoms may not appear in the earliest stages of the disease. That is why many patients are not diagnosed until liver cancer has entered a later stage. Consult your doctor if experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Abdominal swelling
- Appetite loss
- Jaundice — yellowing of the skin and eyes
- Light-colored stools
- Nausea and vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
Liver Cancer Diagnosis
Diagnostic testing includes:
- Blood tests
- Imaging tests
If cancer is detected, the doctor orders other tests to determine the stage of the cancer. Some of those tests may include MRIs or bone scans.
Liver Cancer Treatment
Liver cancer treatment depends on the stage of the cancer and the patient’s age and overall health. Surgery is the best treatment option for early-stage patients when live function is normal and tumor removal can be done with a healthy margin of surrounding tissue.
For those who cannot undergo surgery, ablation is an alternative. In this procedure, extreme heat or cold is used to destroy cancer cells.
Radiation and chemotherapy is deliverable right to the liver for cancer cell destruction. The treatments are sent via a catheter passing through blood vessels into the liver. Immunotherapy and targeted drug therapy are used to slow progression of advanced liver cancer.
Liver transplants can cure liver cancer, but the procedure holds many risks. Those who are otherwise healthy and whose cancers have not spread beyond the liver may prove eligible for a donor liver.
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Jane Meggitt’s work has appeared in dozens of publications including USA Today, Zack’s, Financial Advisor, nj.com, The Houston Chronicle and The Nest. She is a graduate of New York University.
American Cancer Society – Key Statistics About Liver Cancer
Mayo Clinic – Liver cancer
American Cancer Society – Liver Metastases