What is liver cancer?
Primary liver cancer is the growth of abnormal (cancerous) 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. Diagnosis is usually made by a liver biopsy but there are other presumptive diagnostic methods available.
Liver cancer treatments
Primary liver cancer treatments, also called hepatocellular carcinoma, or hepatoma, depend on the stage of the cancer, age, overall health, and the preferences of treatment decided on by the patient and their doctor(s) or management team. Before treatment, the cancer is staged by one of two staging methods; either stages I to IV or A to D with stage IV and D being the most advanced disease with the worst prognosis.
Cancer centers and national cancer groups publish many guidelines on individual treatment methods; the literature is extensive and specific so the first reference contains sources of the various guidelines for the multitude of treatment methods. Liver cancers are difficult to treat and cure. The earlier a hepatoma is found, the greater the likelihood is that it can be cured. For all stages combined the survival rate is about 15% after 5 years. Treatments are usually not cures, but may reduce symptoms and lengthen the person's lifespan (months to years).
Treatment methods for liver cancer include the following:
- Surgery to remove a cancerous part of the liver
- Cryoablation or freezing cancer cells with a probe
- Radiofrequency using a probe that causes cancer cells to die from heat treatment
- Radiation therapy uses high energy beams to kill cancer cells
- Chemotherapy (direct) where drugs that can kill cancer cells are injected into the hepatic artery
- Alcohol injection therapy where pure alcohol is injected into liver tumors o kill tumor cells
- Blood vessel target therapy where drugs inhibit or prevent blood vessel development for areas that supply blood to tumors
- Liver transplant surgery, used in a few patients with early-stage liver cancers
- Clinical trials where new drugs and techniques are tried on liver cancer patients looking for breakthroughs in therapeutic treatments
Some patients are treated with more than one treatment method. These treatments have significant side effects and none guarantee a cure or even a complete resolution of symptoms. Some patients and their doctors, especially those people with advanced liver cancer stages, elect to simply treat the symptoms to make the individual more comfortable. Alternative treatments such as acupuncture, biofeedback, acupressure massages, and others may also help reduce the person's discomfort.
Medically reviewed by Jay B. Zatzkin, MD; American Board of Internal Medicine with subspecialty in Medical Oncology
"Liver Cancer Overview." American Cancer Society.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network.
"Liver Cancer." National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.