The liver is the largest organ in the body responsible for critical bodily functions including:
- Producing bile to help digestion.
- Storing nutrients.
- Breaking down toxins.
When cancer forms in the liver, the liver is the primary site for cancer. If it forms elsewhere in the body and cancer cells transport to the liver, the liver is the secondary site for cancer.
Cancer of the liver may potentially hinder liver function leading to significant problems in other areas of the body.
Types of liver cancer
Hepatocellular carcinoma is formed in the primary liver cells called the hepatocytes.
Cholangiocarcinoma starts in the bile ducts and is also known as bile duct cancer. The bile ducts transport bile from the liver to the gallbladder to aid digestion.
Cancer that forms in the blood vessels of the liver is known as liver angiosarcoma. Liver angiosarcoma is uncommon but develops quickly.
Hepatoblastoma is a form of liver cancer predominantly present in babies and small children.
There is no primary cause of liver cancer although the following may be significant risk factors:
- Damaged liver caused by ongoing exposure to hepatitis A or B.
- Alcohol abuse or persistent heavy drinking.
- Liver damage caused by cirrhosis.
Symptoms of primary liver cancer include:
- Change in stool colour. They may appear white, or lighter.
- Pain in the abdomen.
- Bleeding easily.
To diagnose primary or secondary liver cancer, the doctor or specialist will perform the following tests:
Liver function test
Liver function tests will measure protein levels, enzymes and general efficiency of the liver to contribute to an overall analysis.
CT or MRI scans
A CT or MRI scan will allow the specialist to look closer at the liver and surrounding areas to identify tumours and determine their size, severity, and if the liver is a primary or secondary site.
A sample of liver is removed for analysis either laparoscopically or by inserting a thin needle into the liver.
Treatment for liver cancer varies from patient to patient depending on the size, location, stage and severity of their diagnosis. It's also dependant on whether it's primary or secondary cancer and how well the liver is currently functioning.
The following treatments may be considered:
If the cancer is confined to one area of the liver, a hepatectomy is a surgical procedure that can remove it. Liver tissue can grow back so if the rest of the organ is healthy, this is the preferred treatment.
This is when the liver is removed and replaced with liver from a donor. This is only an option if the liver is the primary site for the cancer and it hasn't spread to other areas of the body.
Chemicals that kill cancer cells are injected intravenously to remove the tumour. Multiple sessions of chemotherapy are required due to the toll the treatment takes on the rest of the body.
Radiotherapy is where high energy rays are administered with a large machine in a process similar to an x-ray. Radiotherapy kills cancer cells, but it may also damage healthy cells too; however, these can grow back in time.
This is a surgical procedure in which material is used to block the hepatic artery to kill the tumour by stopping blood flow to the affected area.
This is the same procedure as an embolisation, but chemotherapy drugs are injected beforehand to keep them in the liver for longer.
Provided liver cancer is diagnosed in the early stages and is the primary site, the prognosis for patients is generally very good, and a full recovery may be possible.