Liver cancer: symptoms, causes and treatment

Liver cancer is a type of malignant tumor that originates in the cells that form the liver, such as hepatocytes, bile ducts or blood vessels, and is usually quite aggressive. It can cause symptoms, which usually appear in the later stages of the disease, and include pain in the abdomen, feeling sick, loss of appetite, weight loss and yellow eyes.

People with fat in the liver, liver cirrhosis or who use anabolic steroids are at higher risk for developing this cancer, which is usually identified by an abdominal examination, such as ultrasound or tomography, capable of detecting one or more nodules in the liver.

Treatment is done with surgery and chemotherapy, depending on the size and severity of each case, and the chances of cure are greater when the tumor is identified early, in the earliest stages. When it is no longer possible to achieve a cure for liver cancer, the survival time is approximately 5 years, but this value may vary according to the degree of development of the disease and other diseases of the patient.

Symptoms that may indicate cancer

The most common symptoms that can arise in liver cancer include:

  1. Pain in the belly, especially on the right side of the abdomen;
  2. Swelling of the belly;
  3. Weight loss without apparent cause;
  4. Loss of appetite;
  5. Excessive tiredness;
  6. Yellow skin and eyes;
  7. Constant seasickness.

Unfortunately, these symptoms usually arise when the cancer is already well developed and, therefore, in most cases, liver cancer can be discovered at an advanced stage, which decreases your chances of cure.

Thus, when there are risk factors, such as excessive alcohol consumption or liver disease, it is important to have regular appointments with the hepatologist to frequently assess the liver and observe any changes that may arise.

What to do in case of suspicion

In cases where any of these symptoms appear, or there are many risk factors, it is advisable to consult a hepatologist for diagnostic tests, such as abdominal ultrasound, CT scan or MRI, to confirm if there are any changes that may indicate the presence of a spot or nodule that is suggestive of tumor.

It is important to remember that not every lump or cyst in the liver indicates cancer, and must wait for the doctor to analyze its characteristics, and can conclude whether there is a risk or not. If suspicious changes are identified, the doctor may order a biopsy of a piece of liver, to check in the laboratory if there are cancer cells in the organ. Understand when the cyst in the liver is dangerous.

For less suspicious cases, it is recommended to repeat the tests periodically, every year or every 3 years, according to each case, so that it is possible to monitor whether there is growth or development of new characteristics that may indicate cancer.

Who is most at risk

Although anyone can develop liver cancer, this type of cancer is more common in people with:

  • Chronic infection with Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C;
  • Cirrhosis;
  • Anabolic use;
  • Diabetes;
  • Liver fat;
  • Excessive alcohol consumption.

In addition, cases of ulcerative colitis or long-term sclerosing cholangitis can also develop liver cancer more easily.

How the treatment is done

In almost all cases, the treatment of liver cancer is done with surgery to remove the entire affected area. However, it may be necessary to have chemotherapy or radiation therapy before surgery to decrease the size of the cancer and facilitate its removal.

In the most severe cases, in which the cancer is highly developed or spreading to other organs, chemotherapy and radiation therapy can also be used only after surgery to try to eliminate the remaining cancer cells.

If there is another disease, such as cirrhosis, removing a part of the liver can be more complicated, so your doctor may recommend a liver transplant to try to achieve a cure. Learn more about this form of treatment.

What are the types

Liver cancer can be primary, that is, when it arises directly in the liver, or it can be secondary, by metastasis or spread of cancer from other organs, such as lungs, stomach, intestine or breast, for example.

The most common type of primary liver cancer is hepatocarcinoma or hepatocellular carcinoma, which is also the most aggressive, and originates in the main cells that form the liver, called hepatocytes. Another common primary tumor is cholangiocarcinoma, originating in the bile ducts. Learn more about the symptoms and treatment of bile duct cancer.

Other rarer types of tumor include fibrolamellar variant liver carcinoma, angiosarcoma or hepatoblastoma, for example.