What is liver cancer?
Liver cancer is characterised by an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that are located in the liver. In the cells, changes occur in the genes within the cell nucleus, resulting in cells with an abnormally regulated cell division. These abnormal cells are not recycled into healthy cells but rather divide themselves unusually quick, thereby creating a tumour of abnormal cells in the liver.
Tumours that do not spread from the place of origin are referred to as ‘benign’ tumours. A different type of tumour is the malignant tumour which is significantly more severe and dangerous than the benign type. The malignant tumours can spread to other parts of the body. This spreading often occurs through the blood or the lymphatic system, and the newly-emergent tumours are called ‘metastases’. When cancer cells begin to spread from their place of origin, the cancer becomes much more difficult to treat.
‘Primary liver cancer’ is rarely seen, and this type only involves the cases that begin in the liver. Liver cancer is often a result of a malignant tumour located in a different organ within the body which has spread to the liver and formed metastasis. This illness is called ‘secondary liver cancer’. These cancer cells that create the metastasis often originate from malignant tumours in either the colon or rectum.
Each year, an estimated 5,550 people in the UK are diagnosed with liver cancer, and it is most often men above the age of 60 who suffer from the disease.
What are the symptoms of liver cancer?
Symptoms of liver cancer include:
- Night sweats
- Light fever
- Pain in the upper abdomen
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
If a patient suffers from secondary liver cancer, there may be additional symptoms from where the primary malignant tumour is located.
What causes liver cancer?
Primary liver cancer is frequently of the type called ‘hepatocellular carcinoma’ and is often a result of cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis of the liver can be caused by a viral infection with hepatitis A-E virus, but other diseases as well as a major alcohol abuse and various environmental factors can also cause cirrhosis of the liver. Secondary cancer is caused by a spread of cancer cells from a different organ within the body such as the colon, rectum, chest or the stomach.
How is it diagnosed?
In case of suspected liver cancer, doctors can conduct a number of examinations at a hospital. Some of these examinations involve blood test analysis, ultrasound scanning and CT/MR scans. In rare instances, doctors will take a tissue sample from the liver to determine if it is cancer or not and in such case which type it is.
Upon suspected cancer of the bile ducts, an examination called ‘ERCP’ is appropriate. Here, a tube with colourant is passed down into the duodenum via the mouth. The colourant is injected into the bile ducts and will afterwards light up the bile ducts on an X-ray. That way, it is possible to see if drainage from the gallbladder is blocked due to a tumour or not.
Which treatments are there?
Depending on the location, difficulty and type of cancer, the treatment can vary. The rare form of liver cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, is not treatable with chemotherapy. However, chemotherapy can be life-prolonging in case of cancer in the bile ducts. If the cancer has not spread and is only traced to the liver, a method called ‘chemo embolization’ is useful. Here, the chemotherapy is injected straight into the blood streams of the liver.
Occasionally, not all tumours can be operated away from the liver as it is a very fragile organ, and then alternatives are settled for such as alcohol injections in the liver to stop the development of the cancer. In rare cases, a liver transplantation is the only way to treat the patient. To avoid the disease or avoid worsening it, it is recommended to cease alcohol intake.