What is hepatocellular carcinoma?

Hepatocellular carcinoma is a type of liver cancer. It is the most common type of cancer that starts in the liver, which is different from cancers that start somewhere else in the body but spread to the liver.

Your liver has many functions that keep you healthy. It changes vitamins, minerals, fats and other nutrients from the foods you eat so your body can use them. It stores these nutrients and releases them to your body when you need them. Your liver also changes harmful substances (toxins) in your body so they're harmless and then gets rid of them.

Common related conditions
Liver Cancer

Causes of hepatocellular carcinoma

Here are some things known to cause this condition:

  • Alcoholism or heavy drinking
  • Liver infections called hepatitis B or hepatitis C
  • Cirrhosis, which is scar tissue on the liver caused by damaged cells from other diseases
  • Hemochromatosis, a disease that causes too much iron to be stored in the liver
  • Long-term swelling of the liver

Risk factors of hepatocellular carcinoma

In addition to the known causes of this condition, other things put you at a higher risk for the disease include:

  • Gender — more men than women develop hepatocellular carcinoma.
  • Age — usually people diagnosed with this cancer are 50 years of age or older.
  • Obesity — carrying too much weight can cause nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which can then cause hepatocellular carcinoma.
  • Diabetes — high insulin levels and liver damage that come from diabetes may cause this type of cancer.
  • Aflatoxin — this mold forms on grains like corn and nuts such as peanuts.

Symptoms of hepatocellular carcinoma

Some symptoms may be a sign that this disease is developing. However, in the early stages you might not have any symptoms at all. Watch for:

  • Stomach pain or tenderness in the upper right part
  • Swelling or bloating of your stomach
  • A lump or heavy feeling in the upper part of your belly
  • Loss of appetite
  • Losing weight for an unknown reason
  • Unusual tiredness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Yellowish tint to your skin and eyes
  • Dark colored urine
  • Pale, chalky stools
  • Fever

Diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma

Your doctor will give you a physical exam, which includes feeling if your liver is swollen or painful. They'll also ask you about your symptoms. If your doctor suspects hepatocellular carcinoma, they'll order one or more of these tests:

  • Blood test — blood with high levels of a protein called AFP may mean liver cancer.
  • Imaging — tests such as a CT scan (a type of x-ray, MRI (a combination of powerful magnets and radio waves) or ultrasound (imaging made with sound waves) of your abdomen create pictures your doctor can use to look for tumors in your liver.
  • Liver biopsy — a lab specialist tests a small sample of your liver tissue for cancer cells.

Treatments for hepatocellular carcinoma

You have a lot of treatment choices. The type that's best for you depends on how far along the cancer is, its location, how healthy you are and how well your liver is working. Here are some options:

  • Surgery — the surgeon removes the tumor or part of your liver if the tumor hasn't spread yet.
  • Chemotherapy or radiation — chemicals or powerful rays directed right at the cancer cells might kill them; your doctor may also use chemotherapy before surgery to make the tumor smaller before removing it.
  • Liver transplant — this is the complete removal and replacement of your liver if your cancer hasn't spread to other parts of your body.
  • Heat or cold ablation — with this type of treatment, extreme heat or extreme freezing are used to kill the cancer cells.
  • Percutaneous ethanol injection — a needle injects alcohol into the tumor to try to destroy it.

It is possible for hepatocellular carcinoma to become serious enough that there is no cure. If so, your doctor may use drugs and other therapies to help you live longer and improve your quality of life as much as possible.

Recovery from hepatocellular carcinoma

Doctors recommend joining a support group during and after treatment. This helps you know what to expect and get comfort from others' experiences.

Also, do things that help you relax and give you the emotional support you may need from people who care about you.

Find a hepatocellular carcinoma specialist nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you