It’s October, which means that it’s Liver Cancer Awareness Month. During this month, we seek to support the survivors of liver cancer. Simultaneously, we encourage those who exhibit the signs to follow up with their doctors for proper screening. As one of the deadliest forms of cancer, liver cancer is steadily on the rise. It’s relatively rare in the United States, and The National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program estimates that 42,030 new cases of liver and intrahepatic bile duct cancer will be diagnosed in the US this year.
What is Liver Cancer?
The liver is one of the largest organs in the body. Its purpose is to filter harmful substances from the blood and produce bile that helps the digestion and absorption of fats. The liver stores sugar in the body to be turned to energy. Primary liver cancer sometimes begins in the cells of your liver. More commonly, however, it spreads there, which is called metastatic or secondary liver cancer.
There is more than one type of primary liver cancer: hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer), angiosarcoma and hemangiosarcoma, and hepatoblastoma. Hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common form of liver cancer in adults. There are a few different subtypes of HCC and the most common in the United States typically affects the entire liver. Bile duct cancer makes up about 10% to 20% of cancers that start in the liver. These cancers start in the tubes that carry bile to the gallbladder.
Angiosarcoma and hemangiosarcoma are rare cancers that begin in the cells lining the blood vessels of the liver. Those who have been exposed to vinyl chloride and thorium dioxide typically develop these cancers. Generally, these tumors grow quickly and are easily widespread. Lastly, hepatoblastoma is very rare and generally develops in children younger than four years old. For two our of three children, these tumors are treated successfully.
More often than not, cancer that is found in the liver has spread from the pancreas, colon, stomach, breasts, or lung. Because of this spread, this is considered secondary liver cancer. These tumors are treated based on where they originated. In the US and Europe, secondary liver cancer is more prevalent, however, in Asia and Africa, primary liver cancer is most common.
Generally, those in the early stages of primary liver cancer, don’t experience the typical signs and symptoms of the disease. These signs include loss of weight or appetite, upper abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, weakness and fatigue, abdominal swelling, jaundice, and white, chalky stools.
Risk factors of primary liver cancer include:
- Having hepatitis B or C
- Heavy alcohol use
- Cirrhosis or scarring of the liver
- Hemochromatosis (iron storage disease)
- Obesity and diabetes
- Exposure to aflatoxins
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
Prevention and Treatment
In order to prevent liver cancer, you must protect yourself against both hepatitis B and C infections. Because hepatitis B can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer, it’s important to get the hepatitis B vaccine or if you contract the infection, consider anti-viral treatment. To reduce your risk of hepatitis C, know the health status of your sexual partners, avoid use of intravenous drugs, and seek safe, clean shops when getting a piercing or tattoo. Lastly, drink alcohol in moderation and maintain a healthy weight by exercising regularly and a healthy diet.
If you are at risk of liver cancer because you have previously contracted a chronic liver disease, schedule regular screenings with your doctor. Treatment for primary liver cancer is dependent on the extent of the disease as well as your age, overall health, and personal preference. Your options include:
- Surgery to remove the tumor
- Liver transplant surgery
- Heating or freezing cancer cells
- Injecting alcohol into the tumor
- Injecting chemotherapy drugs into the liver
- Placing beads filled with radiation into the liver
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted drug therapy
- Supportive (palliative) care
During this month, Abba Medical Transportation and many other businesses and organizations honor those who have survived cancer and those we have lost. Knowing the symptoms and signs is the first step!