Understanding Liver Cancer: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment Options

The Most Common Type of Liver Cancer: Hepatocellular Carcinoma

Liver cancer is a serious disease that affects thousands of people worldwide. Among the different types of liver cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common one. HCC begins in the primary cells of the liver, known as hepatocytes. Risk factors for the development of cirrhosis, which can progress to cancer, are often caused by chronic infection with hepatitis B or C viruses, accumulation of fat in the liver, and other liver conditions.

Risk Factors Associated with Liver Cancer

The occurrence of liver cancer is often environmentally related, meaning it is linked to certain lifestyles and risk factors. Some of these risk factors include:

  • Viral hepatitis: Untreated chronic infections with hepatitis B or C viruses can damage the liver and increase the risk of cancer.
  • Alcohol consumption: Chronic alcohol consumption causes intoxication of the liver, changing its consistency and increasing the risk of transformation into cancerous cells.
  • Exposure to toxins: Toxic substances such as smoking or aflatoxin can contribute to the development of liver cancer.
  • Obesity: Obesity, particularly with fat accumulation around the liver, is associated with an increased risk of developing liver cancer, known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • Diabetes: People with diabetes have a slightly higher risk of developing liver cancer due to metabolic disorders.

It is important to note that these risk factors do not automatically lead to the development of liver cancer, but their presence may increase the likelihood over time.

Symptoms of Liver Cancer

As the disease progresses, certain symptoms may become apparent:

  • Abdominal pain: Pain may occur as the consistency of the liver changes.
  • Abdominal swelling: Swelling due to fluid accumulation may occur when advanced disease sets in, a condition known as ascites.
  • Unexplained weight loss: Significant and unintentional weight loss can be a symptom of liver cancer.
  • Fatigue and weakness: Fatigue and general weakness may be experienced.
  • Jaundice: In advanced stages of disease, yellowing discoloration in skin and eyes may be observed when liver function is impaired.
  • Nausea and vomiting: Nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite may occur.
  • Loss of appetite: Loss of appetite and changes in eating habits may lead to significant weight loss.

Diagnosing Liver Cancer

Several diagnostic tools can be employed to detect liver cancer:

  • Regular medical examinations: Patients considered at risk, such as those with viral hepatitis or cirrhosis, may undergo regular medical surveillance to detect early signs of liver cancer.
  • Blood tests: Primarily used for disease monitoring rather than diagnosis, blood tests such as alpha-fetoprotein levels and liver enzyme levels may be performed to detect signs of liver dysfunction.
  • Biopsy: If imaging tests have not been able to confirm a disease despite clinical and laboratory signs, a liver biopsy may be performed. This involves taking a small tissue sample from the liver for further analysis to confirm the presence of cancer cells or rule out the risk.

Treatment Options for Liver Cancer

Several therapeutic options can be considered:

  • Surgery: If cancer is diagnosed at an early stage and the patient is in good health, surgical resection can be performed to remove the part of the liver affected by the tumor.
  • Liver transplantation: For more advanced cases or when the tumor is too large to be surgically removed, liver transplantation may be considered, replacing the diseased liver with a healthy one from a donor.
  • Radiofrequency and microwave ablation: These techniques use waves to destroy cancer cells. They are often used for smaller tumors.
  • Chemotherapy and targeted therapies: Anticancer drugs can be administered intravenously to destroy cancer cells or inhibit their growth. Targeted therapies can also be used to target specific abnormalities in cancer cells.
  • Embolization: This technique involves blocking arteries that supply blood to the tumor to prevent its growth or reduce its size.
  • Supportive and palliative care: In advanced cases where cancer would be difficult to treat, supportive care aimed at relieving symptoms and improving quality of life for patients may be offered.

A multidisciplinary approach involving a team of medical professionals is necessary to provide comprehensive care, customized treatment plans, and supportive services for those affected by liver cancer.