Liver Cancer

What is Liver Cancer?

Liver cancer, also referred to in medical terminology as hepatocellular carcinoma, is a tumor made up of harmful cells that develops in a person’s liver. It affects more men and than women, mostly in patients older than 50. Although in the United States other related cancers such as colon cancer and pancreatic cancer are much more of a cause for concern, developing nations in Africa and Asia are quite affected by liver cancer due to the higher rates of hepatitis B and C infection in those countries.

Although hepatocellular carcinoma characterizes the majority of liver cancers, cancer that attacks the liver as a result of spreading from another cancerous organ is called metastatic liver cancer and is more common in patients who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and colon cancer.

What Causes Liver Cancer?

Liver cancer often starts in the body as scar tissue in the liver, in patients with a disease called cirrhosis. Some causes of cirrhosis are auto-immune diseases in the liver, infection from a hepatitis virus, inflammation of liver tissue and an excess of iron in a person’s digestive system, and long standing insulin resistance/obesity. Among Americans, excessive alcohol intake is the most common cause for cirrhosis;however, obesity and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is becoming much more rampant.

If you feel pain in the top right-hand side of your abdomen, notice a hypersensivity to bruises and bleeds, notice symptoms of jaundice or feel swelling in your abdomen, your test results may show a diseased or enlarged liver. Contact a doctor who can perform a CT scan, ultrasound or biopsy to test your liver for cancer.

Is Liver Cancer Treatment Effective?

As with most cancers, early detection is the most important step of preventing liver cancer. However, most patients don’t catch the disease until they notice severe symptoms, in which case the cancer is most likely already spreading. Treating liver cancer completely means removing the affected portion of the liver with surgery altogether. Sometimes doctors will deliver chemotherapy directly into the liver by using a device called a catheter—but, in general, this only controls the symptoms and slows down the cancer, not cures it. Unfortunately, this latter method of treatment is the only option for almost 90 percent of liver cancer patients.  There is also a newer technique which uses radiofrequency ablation directly to the liver tumor, and obliterates the cancer cells directly.  There are some forms of systemic chemotherapy available for liver cancer, but their effectiveness is not great.  Depending on the individual case, liver cancer can be fatal within 5 months. In order to work toward prevention and ensure early detection of liver cancer, most doctors recommend that patients should avoid drinking alcohol and prevent contraction of hepatitis with vaccines if you are concerned about liver health.


Reviewed 12/29/2011 by David M. Nolan, M.D.
Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine, 2011
Currently a Fellow of Gastroenterology, at UCI 2011-2014