Liver Cancer (Hepatocellular Carcinoma)

  • Medical Author: Venkatachala Mohan, MD
  • Medical Editor: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

  • Medical Editor: Jay B. Zatzkin, MD, FACP

Liver Cancer Symptoms and Signs

Liver cancer is the abnormal (cancerous) growth of liver cells (most frequently hepatocytes) in the liver. Other liver cell types infrequently can become cancerous but the most common liver cancer is hepatocellular cancer. Other cancer cells can invade the liver (for example, colon, breast, or lung cancer cells) but these are considered metastatic (secondary) cancers, not primary liver cancers. Symptoms of liver cancer include:

  • upper abdominal pain,
  • unplanned weight loss,
  • appetite loss,
  • weakness,
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin or white area of eyes), and
  • light or white chalk-like stools.

Liver cancer facts

  • Most people who get liver cancer get it in the setting of chronic liver disease.
  • Incidence rates of hepatocellular cancer are rising in the United States due to increasing prevalence of cirrhosis caused by chronic hepatitis C and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • There are many treatment alternatives for liver cancer. The treatment chosen depends upon how much the cancer has spread and the general health of the liver and the overall health of the patient.

What is liver cancer?

Primary liver cancer is a condition that happens when normal cells in the liver become abnormal in appearance and behavior. The cancer cells can then become destructive to adjacent normal tissues, and can spread both to other areas of the liver and to organs outside the liver.

Malignant or cancerous cells that develop in the normal cells of the liver (hepatocytes) are called hepatocellular carcinoma. A cancer that arises in the ducts of the liver is called cholangiocarcinoma.

What is metastatic liver cancer?

Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread from the place where it first started (the primary site) to another place in the body (secondary site). Metastatic cancer in the liver is a condition in which cancer from other organs has spread through the bloodstream to the liver. Here the liver cells are not what has become cancerous. The liver has become the site to which the cancer that started elsewhere has spread. Metastatic cancer has the same name and same type of cancer cells as the original cancer. The most common cancers that spread to the liver are breast, colon, bladder, kidney, ovary, pancreas, stomach, uterus, breast, and lungs.

Metastatic liver cancer is a rare condition that occurs when cancer originates in the liver (primary) and spreads to other organs (secondary) in the body.

Some people with metastatic tumors do not have symptoms. Their metastases are found by X-rays or other tests. Enlargement of the liver or jaundice (yellowing of the skin) can indicate cancer has spread to the liver.

What causes liver cancer?

Most people who get liver cancer get it in the setting of chronic liver disease (long-term liver damage called cirrhosis), which scars the liver and increases the risk for liver cancer. Conditions that cause cirrhosis are alcohol use/abuse, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.

The causes of liver cancer may be linked to environmental, dietary, or lifestyle factors. For example, in Nov. 2014, researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, found that long-term exposure to triclosan, a common ingredient in soaps and detergents, causes liver fibrosis and cancer in laboratory mice. Although triclosan has not been proven to cause human liver cancer, it is currently under scrutiny by the FDA to determine whether it has negative health impacts.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 1/21/2016

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