Liver Cancer: The Basics

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed:

The liver is an organ that cleans the blood, makes bile, regulates blood sugar levels and helps in blood clotting. Liver cancer is caused by liver cells growing out of control. As the number of cells grow, they form into a tumor. 

Liver cancer that has spread from the liver to some other part of the body is called metastatic cancer.

Risks

Risks include:

  • Liver scarring (cirrhosis) from alcohol use or having hepatitis C.
  • Hepatitis B.
  • Exposure to chemicals.
  • Use of tobacco.

Signs of Liver Cancer

There usually aren’t signs of liver cancer until it has spread. Signs include: 

  • Stomach pain.
  • Feeling full or bloated.
  • Fatigue.
  • Not feeling hungry.
  • Upset stomach.
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes.
  • Losing weight.

Diagnosis of Liver Cancer

When your healthcare providers think you may have liver cancer, they will do a full exam of your body and ask you questions about your health. They also may order tests:

These tests are important but a biopsy is the only way to know for sure if you have cancer. A biopsy:

  • Looks at a piece of the liver for cancer cells.
  • Is used to find out the cancer type, how normal it is [grade], and if it has spread.
  • May look at samples from lymph nodes to check for cancer.

A pathology report sums up these results and is sent to your healthcare provider, typically 5-10 days after the biospy. This report is an important part of planning your treatment. You can ask for a copy of your report for your records.

Staging Liver Cancer

To guide treatment, liver cancer is "staged." This stage is based on:

  • Size and location of the tumor.
  • Whether cancer cells are in the lymph nodes.
  • Whether cancer cells are in other parts of the body.

Stages range from stage I (smallest, most confined tumors) to stage IV (tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, also called metastatic cancer). There is more than one staging system for liver cancer. Some others include The Child Pugh Score and the Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer staging system. The stage of liver cancer will guide your treatment plan.

Treatment

Often, these treatments are used: 

  • Surgery to remove the whole tumor gives the best chance for curing the cancer. 
  • For patients who can’t have surgery there are other ways to treat the cancer including cryosurgery, radiofrequency ablation, ethanol injections, transarterial chemoembolization and radioembolization.
  • Radiation and chemotherapy are not often used but can be used to treat areas of metastasis.
  • Targeted therapies have become more popular in the treatment of liver cancer, and there are several new therapies undergoing investigational trials. 

This article is a basic guide to liver cancer. You can learn more about your type of liver cancer and treatment by using the links below.

All About Liver Cancer

Surgical Procedures: Surgery and Staging for Liver Cancer

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