There are two different types of liver cancer:
- Primary (hepatocellular carcinoma) – Originates in the liver.
- Secondary(metastatic) – Originates elsewhere before spreading to the liver.
Due to its job of filtering the blood that’s coursing through your veins, the liver is more susceptible to cancer than any other organ in the human body. For this reason you are more likely to have metastatic liver cancer that started elsewhere and spread to your liver than you are to have a primary liver cancer.
About 2% of cancer patients in the U.S. suffer from primary liver cancer, but it is considerably more prevalent in underdeveloped countries where contagious illnesses like hepatitis are more common and can lead to liver cancer.
This article will cover:
- what causes both types of liver cancer
- how you can treat them
- and what to do after treatment
Primary Liver Cancer – Hepatocellular Carcinoma
Primary liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma)is a malignant tumor usually found in livers with birth defects, damage from alcohol abuse, or infections from diseases like hepatitis, or cirrhosis. The majority of patients with liver cancer have cirrhosis. It is also linked to diabetes, obesity and fatty liver disease.
Known substances that can also cause cancer include:
- Herbicides and chemicals – Including vinyl chloride and arsenic.
- Smoking – Especially when combined with alcohol abuse.
- Aflatoxins – Cancer causing substances made by a type of plant mold. It has been found to contaminate wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans in underdeveloped countries.
- Hormones – androgen and estrogen.
Other factors that can contribute to the likelihood of liver cancer include:
- Gender – Men are twice as likely as women to get liver cancer.
- Race – In the U.S., Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are more prone to liver cancer.
- Steroid use – Athletes who abuse steroids over long periods of time increase their risk of cancer.
Secondary Liver Cancer – Metastasis
Metastatic cancer usually originates elsewhere – like your colon, lung or breast – before spreading through your body via metastasis and ending up in your liver. This is not technically liver cancer – but actually named after where it originated. For example, if it started in your lungs, it would be considered lung cancer.
It should be known that even if you are cleared of cancer in the original location, years later it can still spread via the bloodstream and end up in your liver. Once cleared of cancer, you should still have regular checkups to make sure it hasn’t spread.
Liver Metastasis Process
Not all cancers follow this process, but most follow these 6 steps:
- Local Invasion – Cancer cells spread from site of origin into normal tissue.
- Intravasation – Cancer cells pass through the walls of nearby lymph and blood vessels.
- Circulation – Via the lymphatic system and blood stream, cancer cells spread to other parts of the body.
- Arrest and Extravasation – Once they reach a location (in this case the liver), the cancer cells move through the small blood vessel (capillary) and invade tissue.
- Proliferation – Cancer cells begin to grow, creating small tumors known as micrometastases.
- Angiogenesis – Micrometastases stimulate the creation of new blood vessels to supply the necessary oxygen and nutrients for tumor growth.
Similar to other liver diseases, symptoms of liver cancer and liver metastasis don’t always show up right away.
11 symptoms that will inevitably show include:
- Weight loss
- Appetite loss
- Upper abdominal pain
- Constantly vomiting
- Bloody vomit
- Weakness and fatigue
- Abdominal swelling
- Jaundice – yellowing of skin and whites of eyes
- White, chalky stools or black stools
- Difficulty swallowing
If you start to notice any of the above symptoms, schedule an appointment with your physician immediately.
When you go to see your doctor, he will do various screenings to check you for cancer:
- Liver Function Test – Blood tests to check how well the liver is functioning. This is usually a good way to distinguish between primary liver cancer and liver metastasis. If elevated liver enzymes are found, that could be a sign of primary liver cancer.
- CT Scan of the Abdomen – This is a special kind of X-ray for soft tissue organs. It can show if cancer has caused tissue to deteriorate.
- Ultrasound of the Liver – Transmits high-frequency sound waves through the body, producing echoes that are used to map an image of the organ’s tissue.
- MRI – Using large magnets and a computer, it creates images of internal organs and tissue structures.
- Angiogram – By injecting dye into an artery, the doctor is able to take images of the body along the artery’s path, producing images of internal structures.
- Laparoscopy – Using a narrow tube, the doctor takes a small tissue sample and studies it under a microscope. This is the least invasive and most reliable way to diagnose cancer.
Staging the Cancer
Once finding a diagnosis, the doctor will then check what stage the cancer is in to see if it has to spread and how much so. This will determine how much cancer is in the body, the best way to treat it, and the odds of beating it.
Cancer has 4 stages, I through IV.
The lower the stage, the best chance of beating it.
- Stage I – A single tumor that hasn’t grown into blood vessels.
- Stage II – A single tumor that has grown into the blood vessels or a group of smaller tumors.
- Stage III – There are 3 sub
- Stage IIIA – There is more than 1 tumor and at least one has a diameter greater than 2 inches.
- Stage IIIB – There is more than 1 tumor and at least one is growing into the portal or hepatic vein.
- Stage IIIC – The tumor has grown into a nearby organ (but not the gallbladder), or the outer covering of the liver.
- Stage IV – The cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes and may have grown into nearby blood vessels and organs.
Liver Cancer Treatment
There are a variety of treatments for liver cancer. Which treatment that’s chosen is usually based on these 4 factors:
- The patient’s age and general health.
- The tumor(s) size and location.
- Location and type of cancer.
- Past cancer treatment the patient has gone through.
A lot of the time, the treatment will be palliative, meaning the doctor will be trying to control the symptoms and prolong life but may not be able to find a cure.
The doctor may choose to use a systemic therapywhere he treats the whole body via the bloodstream.
- Chemotherapy – Drugs are used to kill cancer cells by targeting fast growing cells that multiply, usually affecting healthy cells as well.
- Immunotherapy – Uses medicine to help boost the immune system fight cancer.
- Targeted Therapy – Similar to chemotherapy, but these drugs target cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone.
If the cancer is still in the early stages and hasn’t spread, the doctor may consider a localized therapyto target only tumor cells and nearby tissue.
- Surgery – If there is a small number of tumors only affecting a small area of your liver, surgically removing the cancer is the best option.
- Radiation Therapy – Uses high-energy radiation, from radiation machines or radioactive substances, to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.
- Tumor Ablation – This method is the best option when surgery is too dangerous. It involves destroying liver tumors without actually removing them.
After Liver Cancer Treatment
Success from treatment is dependent on what stage the cancer was in and the patient’s general health. If it was caught early enough, the patient could very well be cured and can continue to live their life.
If it is Stage IV, the patient may realize that they are better off not being treated and doing their best on their own to enjoy the rest of their days.
Similarly, if a patient finds that treatment is not making any progress in being cured or is no longer able to control the symptoms, it may be time to end treatment.
In all of these scenarios though, it is important to take certain precautions and make some lifestyle changes to still be as healthy as possible.
- Cancer Screenings –As previously noted, even if you are initially cured of cancer in one area, it can still spread via the blood. That is why it’s important to be screened regularly for cancer.
- Diet and Exercise– If you begin to exercise more and eat healthier, you will keep your liver in a healthier form to avoid cancer coming back or spreading if you are still living with it.
- Quit Smoking and Drinking– By not introducing these toxins into your system, you are able to let your liver heal and function better.
- Supplement with Milk Thistle – Milk thistle is the most recommended herb for liver health. According to Natural Wellness, it’s imperative to feed your liver what it needs even after receiving treatment. Specifically, ‘The medical community may view a person who completed treatment successfully as “cured,” but their liver health may still be weakened from their ordeal. New medications are capable of eradicating a liver-focused pathogen from the bloodstream, but there is still reason to support the liver in the treatment’s wake. Successful treatment is often predated by years–or decades–of harm to liver cells. Nourishing, supporting, protecting and strengthening surviving liver cells can help improve liver function and enhance the liver’s resilience to future challenges.’
No matter what, once done with cancer treatment, either because you are cancer free or are choosing to end it, you should always be sure to discuss options with your doctor.
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