The liver is the largest internal human organ. If the liver completely shut down, we would die within 24 hours. This is because the liver has so many vital functions in human life.
Functions of the liver:
- Convert, store and release glucose as needed
- Breakdown fat and produce cholesterol
- Remove ammonia from your body
- Produce blood proteins, including clotting factors
- Detoxify drugs and alcohol
- Produce bile (the role of bile is to break down fat)
- Cleanse the body of cell debris and damaged red blood cells
The National Cancer Institute defines liver cancer as: “Primary liver cancer is cancer that forms in the tissues of the liver. Secondary liver cancer is cancer that spreads to the liver from another part of the body. ” The NCI estimates there will be 21,370 cases and 18,410 deaths from liver cancer and intrahepatic bile duct cancer in the U.S. this year.
Types of Primary Tumors of the Liver:
Hepatocellular : The most common type of liver cancer in adults. Three out of four diagnoses of liver cancer will be hepatocellular. This cancer may present as spots on the liver, a single tumor or various patterns.
Cholangiocarcinoma: This type of liver cancer starts in the bile duct and often has the same treatment plan as hepatocellular liver cancer.
Fibrolamellar carcinoma:A subtype of hepatocellular cancer, this is a rare form with a better prognosis than other types of liver cancer.
Hepatoblastoma:A very rare liver cancer found in children younger than 4, with a good prognosis if diagnosed early.
Angiosarcoma and Hemangiosarcoma: These rare forms of liver cancer begin in the blood vessels, grow quickly and have a very poor prognosis.
Symptoms of liver cancer may include:
- Lack of appetite and weight loss
- Abdominal discomfort
- Nausea and vomiting
- General weakness and fatigue
- An enlarged and tender liver
- Swollen abdomen
- Jaundice of the skin and eyes
Some of the Risk Factors Associated with Liver Cancer:
- Liver infections such as hepatitis
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Sex-Males are twice as likely to develop the disease
- Age-In the U.S and Europe the average age is 60
- Smoking tobacco
- Bile duct disease
- Consumption of foods contaminated with aflatoxins (a mold). This is a problem in Asia and Africa.
Diagnosis and Treatment:
- Diagnosis may include a physical exam, blood tests for liver function, CT, ultrasound, angiogram, MRI and biopsy.
- Note that people at risk may be checked routinely for early tumor development using an AFP (alpha-fetoprotein) blood test which detects a protein present in many liver cancers.
- Staging-see the Mayo Clinic site for information on staging types.
- Treatment depends on staging and the individual diagnosis and may include surgery, chemotherapy and or radiation. Ablation is a treatment used to treat tumors that cannot be removed by surgery locally. Embolization is a treatment used to cut off blood supply to the tumor. See the American Cancer Society site for detailed information on treatment options including complementary and alternative treatment.
Resources and News:
M.D. Anderson, Adult Liver Cancer Support, includes networks, support groups and message boards.
DG Dispatch, March 12, 2008. Guidelines Support Ablation Techniques for Unresectable Liver Cancer: Presented at NCCN “Tumour ablation techniques should play a major role in treating tumours of the liver that are not suitable for resection, according to updated treatment guidelines for hepatocellular carcinoma …”