Overview – What is it?
The liver is one of the largest organs whose main function is to remove toxins from the body. Liver cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the liver when cancerous cells start to grow uncontrollably leading to formation of tumour. The risk factors for this cancer include chronic infection of the liver, diabetes and excessive alcohol intake.
Some of its symptoms are abdominal pain, vomiting and loss of appetite. To diagnose liver cancer, a doctor can use a blood test, biopsy and imaging tests, among other tests.
This cancer can be treated through treatments such as surgery, radiation and targeted therapy.
Limited intake of alcohol and maintaining a good body weight are some of the ways to prevent yourself from getting liver cancer.
Causes – What causes it?
Like most cancers, liver cancer does not have an exact cause. Below are some of the risk factors that can increase the risk for this cancer:
- Excessive alcohol intake: This can cause liver cirrhosis which is an irreversible condition that causes scaring of the liver increasing the risk of getting liver cancer.
- Diabetes: People with diabetes have a higher risk of developing liver cancer than those who do not suffer from this blood sugar disorder.
- Chronic infection with Hepatitis B or C: Hepatitis B and C can also increase liver cancer risk, especially because they affect the liver by causing inflammation.
- Inherited diseases: Diseases that are inherited such as hemochromatosis which is associated with excess iron in the liver, can increase the risk of getting this cancer.
- Low immunity: People whose immunity has been compromised due to infections such as HIV/AIDs are also at a higher risk of developing this cancer than people who have good immunity.
- Gender: Men are at a higher risk of getting liver cancer than women, especially due to lifestyle characteristics such as alcohol intake and smoking.
- Obesity: Being obese raises the chance of developing liver cancer.
- Long-term exposure to aflatoxins: Aflatoxin is made up of fungus and is found in groundnuts, peanuts, soybeans and other products.
Symptoms – What do you feel?
Like most cancers, liver cancer symptoms are noticed in its advanced stage. Some of the symptoms that a person with liver cancer can experience include:
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal swelling
- Loss of appetite
- Unintentional weight loss
- Jaundice (yellow colouring of the eye)
- Nausea and Vomiting
- Enlargement of the liver
- Back pain
- Extreme fatigue
- Swelling of the legs
Diagnosis – How do you diagnose it?
Early detection of liver cancer allows for a higher chance of survival as the cancer is more effective to treat. Its diagnosis can be carried out through:
- Physical Examination: During the initial consultation, the doctor will find out the medical history and family history of the patient and perform a physical exam to determine whether there are any abnormalities such as abdominal swelling, whether the person has jaundice and any other symptoms that can be diagnosed during a physical exam.
- Blood tests: This test is done to check how the blood clots and to check the levels of certain substances in the body such as the red blood cells. Abnormalities in these features can indicate the presence of cancer in the body.
- Imaging tests: These are done to give the doctor images of the internal organs which can help in identifying any abnormalities such as tumours. It can be done using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerised tomography (CT) scans.
- Biopsy: This test involves viewing a sample of the tumour tissue under a microscope to check for any cancer cells.
- Laparoscopy: This is a surgical procedure used to observe the liver and the area around it through a laparoscope which is a thin flexible tube fitted with a camera that is inserted through the abdomen.
- Tests for viral hepatitis: This test is used to check for the presence of hepatitis which increases the risk for liver cancer.
Treatment – How do you treat it?
The treatment for liver cancer is determined by the stage of the cancer, the age of the individual and their general health. The treatment options available include:
- Surgery: This is done to remove the cancer tumour depending on what stage the cancer is in and it can be followed by other treatments. The different types of surgeries for this cancer include:
- Partial Hepatectomy/Liver resection: This surgery involves removal of the tumour and is done in the early stage of this cancer when the cancer has not grown into the blood vessels.
- Hepatectomy: This refers to surgery done to remove part of the liver after which other treatments can be done to kill the cancer cells and prevent the cancer from spreading or reoccurring.
- Transplant surgery: This is surgery done to transfer part of, or an entire, healthy liver from a donor to a recipient. It is usually done for tumours that are impossible to remove due to their location in the liver or the condition of the liver.
- Chemotherapy: This treatment uses a combination of anti-cancer drugs to kill the cancer cells in the body. These drugs can be taken orally or injected into the body.
- Radiotherapy: It involves using high-energy beams to kill cancer cells and may be external (using x-rays) or internal by using radioactive pellets.
- Immunotherapy: This cancer treatment option is meant to boost the immune system of the body and make it aware of the presence of cancer in the body, thereby, making it able to fight the cancer cells.
- Targeted Therapy: It is a type of cancer treatment that uses drugs to target specific cancer cells without causing damage to normal cells.
- Image Guided Radiation Therapy: This treatment combines x-ray imaging and radiation treatment allowing the daily tracking of changes in both location and shape of the tumour and the normal tissues which surround the tumour.
Prevention – How do you prevent it?
The prevention of liver cancer relies strongly on reducing its risk factors by:
- Getting vaccinated against hepatitis B,
- Taking the necessary measures to prevent yourself from getting hepatitis C, such as practising safe sex,
- Getting treatment or management for conditions such as diabetes that can lead to increased risk of liver cancer,
- Not smoking,
- Avoiding excessive alcohol use.
- Getting screened for liver cancer regularly, and
- Maintaining a healthy body weight.