According to the findings of World Cancer Research Fund International, liver cancer is the fifth most common cancer among men. In women, it is the ninth most common cancer in women, suggests this world body. Their findings also reveal that in 2018 alone, there were over were over 840,000 new cases of liver cancer.
What is Liver Cancer?
Located at the right-hand side of the abdomen, your liver is the largest organ of the body that performs some of the most crucial functions like helping your body break down and flush out toxins. It also plays an instrumental role in helping you digest fats, vitamins and other nutrients. Your liver is unable to perform these functions when cancer develops. Liver cancer is a condition where old and damaged liver cells overgrow and multiply instead of dying. Characterised by abnormal cell division, cancer of this organ can be primary or secondary. While primary liver cancer originates in the liver itself, secondary liver cancer occurs when cancer cells from other organs like colon, breast or lungs travel to this organ. This condition can lead to enlarged liver and spleen, swelling of veins in the abdominal skin, bruising and bleeding, high calcium and cholesterol levels.
Liver Cancer Symptoms
Most people don't experience the sign and symptoms of liver cancer till it reaches an advanced stage. At an advanced stage of liver cancer, you may experience the following:
- Loss of appetite
- Pain and swelling in the upper abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- General weakness and fatigue
- Yellowing of the skin
- White, chalky stools
- Unexplained weight loss
- Enlarged liver, spleen, or both
- Back pain
What Causes Liver Cancer?
The function of a cell’s DNA is to is to help your body execute essential chemical functions. Liver cancer is caused by a mutation in the DNA of the liver cells, impairing its functions. Once the DNA is unable to perform its functions, liver cells begin to divide abnormally, triggering the growth of malignant tumours.
Liver Cancer Risks
There are various factors that up your risk of liver cancer. Here, we guide you on the most common ones.
Viral infections: In many cases, viral infections of the liver, namely hepatitis B and C are known to cause liver cancer if left untreated.
Chronic alcoholism: Excessive drinking of alcohol increases the toxic load on the liver that in turn increases your risk of liver disease and cancer.
Food contaminants: Pesticides, chemicals like vinyl chloride, arsenic and plant molds (that produce aflatoxin, a carcinogen) have been proven to cause liver cancer.
Cirrhosis: Long-term liver damage is one of the key risk factors behind liver cancer. This disease causes scarring of the liver tissue that in turn increases the chance of liver cancer.
Gender: Men are at a higher risk of suffering from liver cancer as compared to females.
Other diseases: Diseases such as inherited metabolic disorders, autoimmune diseases of the liver (like Wilson's disease), hemochromatosis (iron overload in the body) and diabetes are known to increase your risk of liver cancer.
Stages of Liver Cancer
Like all other cancers, liver cancer also has four stages. Diagnosis of the stage is necessary to for your oncologist to determine the line of treatment.
Stage 1: The tumour is confined to the liver and hasn’t spread to any other location.
Stage 2: At this stage there could be multiple small tumours in the liver or one such outgrowth that has marched to your blood vessel.
Stage 3: One or more large tumours reach a large blood vessel.
Stage 4: The cancerous cells spread to other parts of the body.
Diagnosis of Liver Cancer
Your doctor might perform a physical examination and review your medical history as well as symptoms to check for enlarged or tender liver. The physical examination will help him figure out if your liver has become tender or grown in size. Don’t forget inform your doctor if you have a history of alcohol or hepatitis B or C infection. He will suggest the following tests if he suspects cancer:
Abdominal CT scan: It is an advanced type of X-ray that captures images of your liver giving your doctor a cross-sectional view of the organ.
Abdominal ultrasound: It a provides 2-D image of the liver that helps your doctor find out the abnormality, infections or changes in your liver.
Liver biopsy: In this, a small sample of the liver tissue is sent for clinical examination to detect cancerous cells.
Liver function tests: These are blood tests that are used to determine the normal levels of the liver by-products and proper functioning of its enzymes.
Serum alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) test: This is a that measures the level of AFP in your blood. The blood level of this protein is a marker of liver cancer.
Treatment of Liver Cancer
The treatment of liver cancer is dependent on the type, stage of the cancer as well as the size of the malignant tumour. The common treatment options available for liver cancer include the following:
If your malignant tumour is small and liver function isn’t largely affected, your doctor may remove the cancerous cell along with a few healthy liver tissues surrounding it. Liver transplant is another surgical option for people with early stage cancer. In this method, the affected liver is replaced with a healthy one from a donor.
In this method, high-energy radiations (ionizing) are used to kill the cancerous cells.
If the liver cancer can be treated with the help of medication, chemotherapy is used. In this method, medication is given either orally or administered intravenously to kill or inhibit the growth of the cancerous cells.
In rare cases of unresectable (non-surgical removal of the tumour) cancer, this treatment option is used. In this, the doctor might use heat, laser, alcohol injection or acid to kill the cancerous cells.
In this, the blood supply to the cancerous cells is blocked so that the cells starve and die. It is done as a palliative (specialised medical treatment) for people with advanced liver cancer.
Liver Cancer Diet
Food is the last thing that a person with liver cancer thinks of. Eating becomes the most unappealing activity when you’re fighting cancer. However, you need to choose your foods cautiously if you want to withstand the onslaught of this fatal disease and the effects of the treatments that it requires. Stick to small frequent meals (five to six) instead of three large ones. Avoid red meat and alcohol. Also, include baked foods instead of deep fried or roasted ones. Including ginger in your teas, toasts and other foods may help relieve nausea, a condition that accompanies liver cancer.
Reduce your Liver Cancer Risk
Liver cancer cannot be prevented. However, you can take various steps to reduce your risk of this liver cancer. Here, we guide you on them:
Immunize yourself against Hepatitis B and C
Both these viral infections of the liver increase your chance of cancer in this organ. Make sure your kids receive the hepatitis B vaccine. It is administered over a period of six month in three doses. Adults in the high-risk group, such as those involved in drug abuse through intravenous injections, should also take this vaccine. This will also reduce your chance of falling prey to hepatitis C as it comes with Hepatitis C. Avoiding unprotected sex with multiple partners and following safe piercing practices while getting a tattoo done, and staying away from drug abuse will also safeguard you against these two forms of hepatitis and liver cancer as well.
Safeguard yourself against cirrhosis
Cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver tissue makes you vulnerable to liver cancer. Drinking alcohol in moderation and maintaining a healthy body weight with mindful eating and regular exercise can reduce your risk of liver cirrhosis.