Cancer that starts in your liver’s cells is called liver cancer. Your liver, an organ about the size of a football, is located in the upper right part of your abdomen, above your stomach and below your diaphragm.
The liver is prone to developing several cancers. Hepatocellular carcinoma, which starts in the primary kind of liver cell (the hepatocyte), is the most prevalent form of liver cancer. Hepatoblastoma and intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma are two significantly less frequent kinds of liver cancer.
More cancers than those that start in the liver cells spread to the liver. Metastatic cancer, as opposed to liver cancer, refers to cancer that starts in another part of the body, such as the colon, lung, or breast, and then spreads to the liver. Metastatic colon cancer, for instance, refers to cancer that starts in the colon and spreads to the liver. This type of cancer is named after the organ in which it first appeared.
Most people don’t have signs and symptoms in the early stages of primary liver cancer. When signs and symptoms do appear, they may include:
- Losing weight without trying
- Loss of appetite
- Upper abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- General weakness and fatigue
- Abdominal swelling
- Yellow discolouration of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
- White, chalky stools
When liver cells experience DNA changes (mutations), liver cancer results. Every chemical reaction in your body has a set of instructions contained in each cell’s DNA. These instructions vary as a result of DNA mutations. One outcome is that cells may start to proliferate out of control and subsequently form a tumour, which is a collection of malignant cells.
It’s sometimes possible to pinpoint the source of liver cancer, such as chronic hepatitis infections. However, it occasionally affects persons who have no underlying illnesses, and its exact cause is unknown.
Factors that increase the risk of primary liver cancer include:
- Chronic infection with HBV or HCV. Chronic infection with the hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV) increases your risk of liver cancer.
- Cirrhosis. This progressive and irreversible condition causes scar tissue to form in your liver and increases your chances of developing liver cancer.
- Certain inherited liver diseases. Liver diseases that can increase the risk of liver cancer include hemochromatosis and Wilson’s disease.
- Diabetes. People with this blood sugar disorder have a greater risk of liver cancer than those who don’t have diabetes.
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. An accumulation of fat in the liver increases the risk of liver cancer.
- Exposure to aflatoxins. Aflatoxins are poisons produced by moulds that grow on crops that are stored poorly. Crops, such as grains and nuts, can become contaminated with aflatoxins, which can end up in foods made of these products.
- Excessive alcohol consumption. Consuming more than a moderate amount of alcohol daily over many years can lead to irreversible liver damage and increase your risk of liver cancer.
Reduce your risk of cirrhosis
Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver, and it increases the risk of liver cancer. You can reduce your risk of cirrhosis if you:
- Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. If you choose to drink alcohol, limit the amount you drink. For women, this means no more than one drink a day. For men, this means no more than two drinks a day.
- Maintain a healthy weight. If your current weight is healthy, work to maintain it by choosing a healthy diet and exercising most days of the week. If you need to lose weight, reduce the number of calories you eat each day and increase the amount of exercise you do. Aim to lose weight slowly — 1 or 2 pounds (0.5 to 1 kilogram) each week.
Get vaccinated against hepatitis B
You can reduce your risk of hepatitis B by receiving the hepatitis B vaccine. The vaccine can be given to almost anyone, including infants, older adults and those with compromised immune systems.
For the general population, screening for liver cancer hasn’t been proven to reduce the risk of dying of liver cancer, and it isn’t generally recommended. People with conditions that increase the risk of liver cancer might consider screening, such as people who have:
- Hepatitis B infection
- Hepatitis C infection
- Liver cirrhosis
Discuss the pros and cons of screening with your doctor. Together you can decide whether screening is right for you based on your risk. Screening typically involves a blood test and an abdominal ultrasound exam every six months.