The formation and growth of unhealthy cancer cells in the liver is called liver cancer. The liver is a large glandular organ located in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen, just below the ribs. Its primary purpose is to keep the body away from germs and other harmful infections. The liver produces bile to digest fats, vitamins and other nutrients. During the digestion process, the liver withdraws glucose to provide nutrients to the body when the body is undernourished.
Along with food, the liver also helps in breaking down medicines. The liver helps in removing poisonous chemicals and waste products from the blood, passing them for excretion. Since the blood from all over the body passes through the liver, it can easily access cancer cells in the bloodstream that cause liver cancer. Cancer that originates from the liver is called primary liver cancer, and cancer that spreads from other parts of the body to the liver are called secondary or metastatic liver cancer. When the liver is infected by cancer, it damages the liver cells and interrupts its normal functions, which stops it from producing bile and filtering blood.
Many types of tumours are found in the liver as it is a collection of different types of cells. Some of these tumours are considered to be non-cancerous(benign), and some are cancerous (malignant). Benign tumours are not dangerous and are removed by surgery if they cause discomfort or pain. The causes for each tumour vary and are treated in different ways. The recovery process entirely depends on the type of tumour present and the health conditions of the individual.
Liver cancer symptoms are not evident during the early stages. Some of the symptoms that occur at later stages are-
Liver cancer causes are related to various reasons-
Hereditary- Most often, primary liver cancer is caused due to birth defects, a serious infection caused by a disease like Hepatitis B and C, hemochromatosis (A disease passed from ancestors which produce excessive iron in the liver) and cirrhosis. The liver is damaged excessively by diseases such as Hepatitis B and C, hemochromatosis. These damages cannot be cured.
Alcohol Abuse- Most often people diagnosed with primary liver cancer suffer from cirrhosis - it a condition caused due to alcohol abuse.
Obesity- Another important cause of primary liver cancer is fatty liver disease and obesity.
Aflatoxins- Pulses and cereals are often spoilt by a substance called Aflatoxins formed from a type of plant mould. By consuming these molds, one can be affected by cancer. This is a very rare condition.
Smoking- Smoking along with excessive drinking also increases the chances of liver cancer.
There are different types of primary liver cancer. As discussed before, primary liver cancer originates from the liver that can be caused by one of the many cells present in the liver. Primary liver cancer can start to grow as a single lump in the liver or may be found in different places of the liver simultaneously. People suffering from chronic liver damage are more likely to suffer from multiple cancer growth sites. Here are some of the main types of primary liver cancer to consider-
Hepatocellular carcinoma- Hepatoma or hepatocellular carcinoma is the most prevalent type of liver cancer that appears in 75% of patients suffering from primary liver cancer. This cancer cultivates in the main liver cells called hepatocytes. Hepatocellular carcinoma usually affects people suffering from liver damage as a result of alcohol abuse. This type of cancer gradually spreads to other organs in the body such as intestines, stomach and pancreas.
Cholangiocarcinoma- Cholangiocarcinoma originates in the minute tube-like bile ducts present in the liver that carries bile to the gallbladder to process digestion. This cancer is generally known as bile duct cancer. Only 10 to 20 percent of liver cancer patients suffer from this type of cancer. The cancer is known as intrahepatic bile duct cancer when it starts off in a branch of the ducts present inside the liver. When the presence of cancer cells are found in a branch outside the liver it is known as extrahepatic bile duct cancer.
Liver Angiosarcoma- A type of liver cancer that originates from the blood vessels of the liver are called Liver angiosarcoma. This type of liver cancer is very unusual and are diagnosed only at advanced stages of liver cancer.
Hepatoblastoma- Hepatoblastoma is a type of liver cancer that is commonly found in children under the age of 3. This type of liver cancer is very uncommon and can be treated with higher survival rates as it is diagnosed at an early stage.
Certain factors are unknown to doctors and researchers on how liver cancer affects only a few people. Depending on the research here are a few risk factors that increase the chances of liver cancer-
Hepatitis B or C-If an individual is suffering from a long-term hepatitis B or C infection, they are more likely to face the consequences of damaging their liver severely. Hepatitis is a contagious condition which spreads through body fluids such as semen, blood or could be passed on from a mother to her child during the process of childbirth. Remember to follow precautionary measures during sexual acts and get vaccinated against Hepatitis B or C to prevent infection.
Alcohol Abuse- Limiting oneself to just one alcoholic beverage every day. Excessive alcohol consumption leads to liver damage and liver cancer.
Cirrhosis- The replacement of healthy tissues with scarred tissues leads to a condition called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is an irreversible process and eventually leads to lung cancer. Most often, this condition is caused due to alcohol abuse and hepatitis C.
Aflatoxin- Aflatoxin is a harmful substance found in plant moulds such as peanuts, grain and corn. Consumption of grains with moulds present on them leads to liver cancer.
Diabetes- People suffering from diabetes are more prone to liver damage, eventually leading to liver cancer in some cases.
Obesity- Increase in excessive body weight leads to hepatocellular carcinoma - a type of primary liver cancer.
Fatty Liver- Fatty liver is caused in non-alcoholic people too. Accumulation of excessive fat in the liver leads to a fatty liver condition which increases the risk of liver cancer.
Heredity- Certain liver disease such as Hemochromatosis and Wilson's disease are inherited causes of liver cancer.
Drug Abuse - The risk of liver cancer is increased in athletes who take a high dosage of Anabolic steroids to develop more muscles in their body.
Metabolic diseases- Certain diseases that disturb the metabolic rate of the body increases the risk of liver cancer.
Liver cancer diagnosis is based on a previous medical condition. If the persisting medical condition is difficult to cure or has worsened, patients will be required to go through a few tests to diagnose liver cancer. Here are a few steps to diagnose liver cancer-
Blood Tests- The function of the liver is established through a blood test that helps in checking the level of liver enzymes, proteins and bilirubin in the blood. The occurrence of alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) in the blood confirms the presence of liver cancer. AFP is a protein that is seen in the liver of the foetus in the womb and the production of this protein stops after birth.
Abdominal CT and MRI Scan- The imaging tests like CT and MRI Scan of the abdomen helps to get accurate images of the liver and other organs. This helps the doctor to locate the tumour easily and also helps in knowing more about the tumour such as the size and the area of infection.
Liver Biopsy- During a liver biopsy, a small piece of tissue from the lungs is removed under general anaesthesia. This procedure can be performed in two ways -
Through the diagnosis of liver cancer, the severity of cancer will be concluded. After the size, location and stage of the cancer are confirmed, further treatment of liver cancer is decided.
Treatment - Just like other cancer treatments, the treatment for liver cancer differs from one person to another depending on the size, location of tumour cells, the functionality of the liver, presence of cirrhosis and the stage of cancer. Some of the treatment option based on these conditions are -
Surgery- During the operation to eradicate liver cancer, an infected portion of the liver is removed with a small portion of healthy tissue to avoid the infection to spread. This procedure is called a hepatectomy. After the surgery, the healthy leftover part of the liver helps in recovering and replaces the missing part. If the tumour is small, present in an uncomplicated location and if the liver functions excellently well, the recovery is fast and easy. Another way to treat liver cancer through surgery is a liver transplant. The infected liver is replaced by a healthy liver donated by a donor and this procedure is called transplantation. This treatment does not work on all liver cancer patients and works well only on patients suffering from early stages of liver cancer.
Ablation- In this procedure, the cancer cells are destroyed by heat from an electric current. The images from an ultrasound help the doctor to insert one or many fine needles into the abdomen. An electric current is passed to heat the needles which damage the tumour cells in the liver. Microwaves or lasers are also used to heat the needles. This procedure does not help in recovering liver cancer in patients who have already undergone surgery or transplant.
Freezing of cancer cells- The procedure of killing cancer cells by freezing them is called Cryoablation. In this procedure, the doctor freezes cancer cells and destroys them by placing an instrument called cryoprobe filled with liquid nitrogen directly into the tumour. This is done with the help of ultrasound images.
Chemotherapy- An assertive drug therapy through IV or tablets to kill cancer cells is called chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is an effective treatment to treat liver cancer. However, patients will have to face side effects such as nausea, vomiting, decrease in appetite, chills and an increase in the chance of infections.
Radiation Therapy- The cancer cells are killed using high-energy radiation beams. Radiation therapy can be conducted in two ways-
Targeted Therapy- Infectious cancer cells are killed by stopping the blood flow to the tumour. During targeted therapy, the Sorafenib (Nexavar) a cancer drug for liver cancer is supplied to target the infectious cells. This therapy is not effective for patients who have undergone hepatectomy and transplant earlier. This therapy also gives out serious side effects.
Embolization and Chemoembolization- A surgery performed to block the hepatic artery in the liver is called Embolization and Chemoembolization. This process is done to decrease the blood flow in the hepatic artery by inserting small sponges and other particles. The process is conducted only after injecting chemotherapy drugs into the artery. This helps in retaining the chemotherapy medicines for a longer period in the liver.
Immunotherapy- The cancer cells produce a protein that blinds the immune system cells and destroys their ability to fight against the cancer cells. Through immunotherapy, the blinding process is interrupted and unblinds the immune system cells to fight against infectious cells. This treatment works well on patients suffering from advanced liver cancer.
Palliative care- It is a supportive treatment along with other cancer treatments that help cancer patients to overcome pain, side effects and stress during their treatment period. It is supportive care which is often preferred by patients suffering from advanced cancer and who do not wish to undergo further medical treatments.
Liver cancer cannot be prevented completely. However, you can reduce the risk of being infected by following the steps below-
Get Vaccinated - All children should get vaccinated against Hepatitis B. Adults who show signs of being affected by Hepatitis B and those who have abused IV drugs should get vaccinated. The injection should be taken in 3 parts within six months.
Prevent Hepatitis C- There are no vaccines available for Hepatitis C; however, the infection can be prevented by taking few precautionary measures-
Prevent Cirrhosis- Do not over-drink alcohol. Consumption of alcohol should be restricted to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. Alcohol abuse damages healthy tissues in the liver and replaces them with scarred tissues. This process is called Cirrhosis.
Reduce weight- For those suffering from obesity, maintaining a healthy weight is very important to avoid the chances of being infected by many diseases. Exercise regularly and eat a well- balanced meal by avoiding junk food. Seek help from a nutritionist to help in weight loss by suggesting and planning a suitable diet chart.
The staging of liver cancer is determined only after the results of the pathology test. There are no defined stages for liver cancer; however, T/N/M and the Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer staging system (BCLC) are the most common. According to the Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer staging system (BCLC), there are four liver cancer stages-
Stage A: It is the beginning stage of liver cancer with a tumour, which is at its early stage. The symptoms are not seen at this stage.
Stage B: The presence of multinodular tumours are found in the liver. The symptoms are not shown yet.
Stage C: The multinodular tumours rapidly start invading the healthy parts of the liver and symptoms begin to show.
Stage D: This is the end stage of liver cancer, where symptoms are very evident and need immediate medical attention.
The journey to fight cancer is painful and stressful. You need to keep up your spirit and fight against it. After surgery for primary liver cancer or secondary liver cancer, the hospital will follow a few post-surgery treatments before sending you home. These include-
Drips and Drains- Post surgery, there will be pipes connected to the body to drain out postoperative fluids, bile and urine. The other pipes will carry drips to nourish the body as the patient will not be able to eat and drink for a few days.
Pain relief- It is very common to feel pain after surgery. This pain can be controlled through painkillers. Painkillers have limited dosages and need to be taken only if necessary.
Once discharged from the hospital, it is important to follow the home care instructions carefully for quicker and safe recovery. Some of them are -
Physiotherapy - Moving around might get a bit difficult post-surgery. A physiotherapist can help by instructing a few exercises that can ease pain and improve breathing and walking patterns.
Avoid Driving- Patients will be advised against driving for a few weeks by the doctor.
Avoid Alcohol- Quitting alcohol post-liver cancer surgery is the best solution; however, moderate drinking habits are allowed in a few patients.
Nutrition- A healthy and well-balanced diet to maintain healthy weight and to stay strong and energetic.
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