Cancer touches millions of people in this country and across the globe. A diagnosis of cancer is terrifying for the patient and family members. However, a cancer diagnosis does not automatically mean death. True, cancer robs the life of many. Yet, it is imperative to bear in mind that millions of people also win the battle. There are different forms of cancer, and the severity of each case varies. Some cancers are usually curable when discovered early. Then again, some forms of cancer are extremely deadly and claims the life of a large percentage of those affected. Liver cancer is the fifth most common cancer, yet it is a leader among silent killers.
What is Liver Cancer?
Liver cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the liver. The liver is composed of many different types of cells. These include bile ducts, blood vessels, and fat-storing cells. Liver cells are primarily located in liver tissues. Cancer of the liver occurs when normal healthy cells begin to divide abnormally. The liver has the natural ability to repair itself. When damage occurs to the liver, cells begin to multiply and form new healthy cells. Thus, the liver is repaired. However, on rare occasions, liver cells divide unnecessarily. These new cells attack healthy cells. Cells of this sort are cancerous. There are two forms of liver cancer. Hepatocellular liver cancer is cancer that arises from the liver. Meanwhile, metastatic liver cancer is cancer that spreads to the liver from other nearby organs such as the stomach, colon, lungs, pancreas, or breast. Cancerous cells in the liver are in the form of tumors. However, not all liver tumors are cancerous. Non-cancerous tumors are benign, and these develop from an overgrowth of healthy liver cells.
All types of cancer are potentially life threatening. However, liver cancer is extremely deadly and will kill most of its victims within a year. It is estimated that each year there are over 400,000 new cases of liver cancer worldwide. In fact, liver cancer is the fifth most common form of cancer. Liver cancer occurs in all national groups. However, this type of cancer is more common in
Southeast Asia. Additionally, liver cancer is very common in
Africa. Although liver cancer is extremely problematic in other countries, the number of cases within the has risen in recent years.
Within the , the majority of those affected by liver cancer are of Asian decent. Caucasians are affected the least, whereas the number of African-Americans and Hispanics affected is moderate.
Risk Factors for Developing Liver Cancer
Although liver cancer may occur at any stage during our life, there are certain factors that place some people at greater risk.
Hepatitis B and C: It has been proven that hepatitis B and C are leading causes of liver cancer. In fact, the chances of developing liver cancer while infected with hepatitis B or C are 200 times higher. Even studies on laboratory rats confirm this theory. Researchers injected a group of rats with the hepatitis virus. Over time, the rats injected with the virus developed liver cancer. But, how does hepatitis cause liver cancer?
It appears that specific parts of the hepatitis B and C virus gradually enters or absorbs into the liver cells. Once absorbed, the genetic code of cells begins to change, which causes liver cells to divide into cancerous or malignant cells. Liver cancer does not develop immediately following infection. Most people who eventually develop liver cancer have lived with hepatitis for the majority of their life. Hepatitis C is responsible for cirrhosis (scarring of the liver). Liver scarring is an irreversible condition that results in the death of many liver cells, which decreases the livers ability to function properly. Weak livers are prone to illnesses such as cancer. On average, it takes about ten to fifteen years for liver cancer to develop after scarring occurs.
Alcohol Abuse: Most people affected with liver cancer will admit to abusing alcohol. You do not have to be an alcoholic to abuse alcohol. Consuming too many alcoholic beverages or enjoying periodic drinking binges during our early years is enough to sustain permanent liver damage. For the most part, liver cancer associated with alcohol abuse occurs after a person stops drinking. Rarely does an active drinker develop cancer of the liver. It appears that when a person stops drinking, the liver attempts to repair damage caused throughout the years. As liver cells divide to form new cells, cancerous cells may also develop.
Medications and Drug: Although medications do not cause cancer, some prescription and over-the-counter medications have a high toxicity level, which could cause liver damage. Because the liver is able to repair itself, taking certain prescription drugs will not cause permanent liver damage. However, those suffering from liver problems should proceed with care. This is especially important for older ones who may already experience scarring of their liver. Moreover, certain medications that contain the female hormone estrogen place women at a greater risk for developing liver cancer. Medications of this sort may alter liver growth and cause benign tumors. Benign tumors are non-cancerous; however, they may become cancerous.
Symptoms of Liver Cancer
Early detection of liver cancer is crucial to surviving this deadly disease. Initially, symptoms may be extremely vague. However, those who are aware of liver problems such as hepatitis or cirrhosis should immediately consult a doctor if they experience one or more of the listed signs.
- Abdominal Pain
- Unexplained Weight Loss
- Unexplained Fever
- Jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes)
- Swollen Legs
- Loss of Appetite
- Low Sex Drive
Diagnosing Liver Cancer
Before a diagnosis of liver cancer is made, patients will have to undergo a series of tests. Initially, liver problems are detected on routine blood tests. If there are liver abnormalities, blood tests will show elevated liver enzymes. In the case of liver cancer and other liver diseases, healthy cells die. When this occurs, the cells release enzymes into the bloodstream. Thus, elevated liver enzymes are indicative of liver damage, which could point to hepatitis, cirrhosis, or liver cancer.
Patients will likely undergo an imaging test which will take pictures of their liver. These tests consist of MRI, CAT scan, or ultrasound. During this procedure, radiologists are able to examine the liver. Sign of scarring or tumors are easily detected. In less serious cases, patients with elevated liver enzymes will have a healthy liver. Liver damage may also be caused by fat deposits or consuming alcoholic beverages prior to blood test.
If abnormalities are present on imaging tests, patients will need to undergo a biopsy. During this procedure, tissue samples are removed from the liver. These samples are examined by a pathologist. If cancer is present in liver cells, patients will have to begin immediate treatment.
Treatment of Liver Cancer
Unfortunately, the majority of people diagnosed with liver cancer die within a year. This is primarily because liver cancer is often diagnosed in advanced stages. Treatment of liver cancer depends heavily on the severity, or stage of the cancer. Surgery is a highly effective option when a small tumor is present. Chemotherapy (drug intended to kill cancer cells), and radiation therapy (intended to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells) have not been very effective with treating liver cancer. Even when treatment is successful, some patients experience recurrence of cancer within three years. To avoid the development of liver cancer, some physicians recommend that those enduring severe liver damage undergo a liver transplant.