Liver cancer 

Introduction 

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Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015

The liver

The liver is one of the most complex organs in the human body. It performs hundreds of different functions. Some of the liver's most important functions include:

  • digesting proteins and fats
  • removing toxins (poisons) from the body
  • helping to control blood clotting (thickening)
  • releasing bile, a liquid that breaks down fats and aids digestion

Liver cancer can disrupt these functions or cause them to fail completely.

Primary liver cancer is an uncommon but serious type of cancer that begins in the liver.

This is a separate condition from secondary liver cancer, which occurs when cancer that first develops in another part of the body spreads to the liver.

The rest of this article refers to primary liver cancer only. The Macmillan Cancer Support website has more information about secondary liver cancer.

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms of liver cancer are often vague and don't appear until the cancer is at an advanced stage. They can include:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • loss of appetite
  • feeling very full after eating, even if the meal was small
  • feeling sick and vomiting
  • pain or swelling in your abdomen (tummy)
  • jaundice (yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes)
  • itchy skin
  • feeling very tired and weak

Visit your GP if you notice any of the symptoms listed above. Although they are more likely to be the result of a more common condition, such as an infection, it's best to have them checked.

You should also contact your GP if you have previously been diagnosed with a condition known to affect the liver, such as cirrhosis or a hepatitis C infection, and your health suddenly deteriorates.

What causes liver cancer?

The exact cause of liver cancer is unknown, but most cases are associated with damage and scarring of the liver known as cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis can have a number of different causes, including drinking excessive amounts of alcohol over many years and having a long-term hepatitis B or hepatitis C viral infection.

It is also believed obesity and an unhealthy diet can increase the risk of liver cancer because this can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

By avoiding or cutting down on alcohol, eating healthily and exercising regularly, and taking steps to reduce your risk of becoming infected with hepatitis B and C, you may be able to significantly reduce your chances of developing liver cancer.

Read more about the causes of liver cancer and preventing liver cancer.

Who is affected?

Despite being a common type of cancer worldwide, liver cancer is relatively uncommon in the UK, with just over 4,000 new cases diagnosed each year. However, the chances of developing the condition are high for people with risk factors for the condition.

The number of people affected by liver cancer rises sharply with age, with around 8 in every 10 cases diagnosed in people aged 60 or older, although it also affects many people younger than this. Around two in every three cases affect men.

Over the past few decades, rates of liver cancer in the UK have risen considerably, possibly as a result of increased levels of alcohol intake and obesity. 

Diagnosis and screening

Liver cancer is usually diagnosed after a consultation with a GP and a referral to a hospital specialist for further tests, such as scans of your liver.

However, regular check-ups for liver cancer (known as surveillance) are often recommended for people known to have a high risk of developing the condition, such as those with cirrhosis.

Having regular check-ups helps ensure the condition is diagnosed early. The earlier liver cancer is diagnosed, the more effective treatment is likely to be.

Read more about diagnosing liver cancer.

How liver cancer is treated

Treatment for liver cancer depends on the stage the condition is at. If diagnosed early, it may be possible to remove the cancer completely.

Treatment options in the early stages of liver cancer include:

  • surgical resection – surgery to remove a section of liver
  • liver transplant – where the liver is replaced with a donor liver
  • microwave or radiofrequency ablation – where microwaves or radio waves are used to destroy the cancerous cells

However, only a small proportion of liver cancers are diagnosed at a stage where these treatments are suitable. Most people are diagnosed when the cancer has spread too far to be removed or completely destroyed.

In these cases, treatments such as chemotherapy will be used to slow down the spread of the cancer and relieve symptoms such as pain and discomfort.

Because liver cancer is most often detected at an advanced stage, only around one in every five people live for at least a year after being diagnosed, and just 1 in every 20 people live at least a further five years.

Read more about treating liver cancer.

Page last reviewed: 29/09/2014

Next review due: 29/09/2016

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'I got cirrhosis at 34'

After years of drinking too much, Andy Ball was diagnosed with the liver disease cirrhosis

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