Liver cancer, otherwise known as hepatic cancer, affects the liver. Liver cancers are malignant tumours that grow on the surface of or inside the liver. The liver, located below the right lung and under the ribcage, is one of the largest organs of the human body. It is divided into the right and left lobes. Nutrient-rich blood is carried by the portal vein, from the intestines to the liver, while oxygen-rich blood reaches the liver from the hepatic artery. The liver has a range of functions, including detoxification (getting rid of toxins), synthesising proteins, breaking down of fats and producing biochemicals that are essential for digestion.
Liver cancer consists of malignant hepatic tumours (growths) in or on the liver. The most common type of liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma (or hepatoma or HCC), and it tends to affect males more than females.
According to medical experts, common causes of HCC are regular, high alcohol consumption, having unprotected sex and injecting drugs with shared needles.
The following are the symptoms that manifest when a person suffers from liver cancer:
Weight loss: It there is no obvious explanation for weight loss, it can be a sign of liver cancer.
A swollen abdomen: Swelling of the abdomen can show in liver cancer for two reasons. The liver itself can get bigger from the growing cancer. This can cause swelling over the right side of the abdomen. Or can cause generalised swelling of the abdomen, caused by a buildup of fluid. This is called ascites.
The fluid builds up because the liver is congested. This squeezes the blood vessels inside the liver and the blood that normally flows through it gets backed up into the veins. The pressure in these veins increases and forces fluid to leak from the veins, into the abdomen. The veins may grow in size, so much that they can be seen underneath the surface of the skin. If the liver is not able to make blood proteins as it should, fluid also tends to leak out of the veins, into the abdominal cavity.
Yellowish skin, dark coloured urine and pale coloured stools: Primary liver cancer develops from the cells that make up the liver. Liver cancer can grow and spread outside the liver. It may grow into the bile duct. If this happens, bile cannot be drained out of the liver, causing the bile's yellow pigment to be excreted through the kidneys. This makes the urine dark and the faeces pale. The buildup of bile in the bloodstream causes jaundice. Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. It may make the skin itch.
Other symptoms associated with liver cancer may include:
Although the exact cause of liver cancer is unknown, it has been linked to damage and scarring of the liver. Below are some causes that result in the occurrence of liver cancer among individual:
Ababolic steroids: These are the steroids which are used by athletes and weightlifters. These male hormones, if used regularly and for long enough can raise the risk of developing liver cancer, as well as some other cancers.
Aflatoxins: This is a substance that is made by a fungus and may be found in mouldy wheat, groundnuts, corn, nuts, soybeans and peanuts. For liver cancer risk to increase, there needs to be long-term exposure. This is more of a problem in some poor countries than in industrialised nations.
Cirrhosis: This is when liver cells are damaged and replaced with scar tissue. People with cirrhosis of the liver have a higher risk of developing liver cancer.
Diabetes: Patients with diabetes, especially if they also have hepatitis or regularly consume a lot of alcohol, are more likely to develop liver cancer.
Family history: People whose mother, father, brother or sister suffer from liver cancer, have a higher risk of developing it themselves, as compared to others.
Liver disease and inherited liver disease: People with hepatitis B or C have a significantly higher risk of developing liver cancer, as compared to other healthy individuals.
Low immunity: People with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS, have a risk of liver cancer that is five times greater than other healthy individuals.
Obesity: Obesity raises the risk of developing many cancers, including liver cancer.
Gender: A higher percentage of males get liver cancer, as compared to females. Some experts believe this is not due to gender, but due to lifestyle problem- on an average, males tend to smoke and consume alcohol more than females.
Smoking: Individuals with Hepatitis B or C have a higher risk of liver cancer if they smoke.
Water wells with arsenic: People who rely on water wells that have arsenic may have a significantly high risk of developing several conditions or diseases, including liver cancer.
HCC screening - High risk individuals for HCC (hepatocellular carcinoma) should have regular screenings for liver cancer. Liver cancer, if not diagnosed early, is much more difficult to get rid of. The only way to know whether you have liver cancer, early on, is through screening, because one will present no symptoms. High risk people include those with hepatitis C and B, patients with alcohol-related cirrhosis, other alcohol abusers, and those that have cirrhosis as a result of Hemochromatosis.
Diagnostic tests may include:
The treatment for primary liver cancer patients depends on the stage of the disease as well as the person's age, overall health and personal preferences. Liver cancer treatment options may include: