What is liver cancer?

Your liver is your body's largest internal organ. It filters all the blood running through your body. It removes waste and converts nutrients and medications so they're ready for your body to use. Cancer develops when liver cells mutate, meaning they change suddenly and start growing quickly. When that happens, the cancerous cells form a solid mass, also known as a tumor. There isn’t always a cause of liver cancer.

There are two different types of liver cancer. Primary liver cancer starts in your liver. Secondary, or metastatic, cancer starts in another body part, and it spreads to your liver. This disease affects two times more men than women.

In 2018, doctors will diagnose 42,220 new cases of primary liver cancer, according to the American Cancer Society’s estimates.

Risk factors for liver cancer

Certain factors may increase your risk of liver cancer, including:

  • Cirrhosis — this incurable liver disease causes scarring in your liver.
  • Hepatitis B or C — these liver infections are chronic and can cause liver damage.
  • Diabetes — this condition affects your blood sugar levels.
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease — if you have this condition, your liver accumulates fat, which can create damage.
  • Alcoholism — drinking large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis damages your liver.

Symptoms of liver cancer

In the early stages, you might not have any signs that you’re sick. This is one reason liver cancer can be hard to catch in the early stages.

Possible symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Itchy skin
  • Unusual bruising
  • Yellow eyes and skin
  • Not having an appetite
  • Swelling in your stomach
  • Losing weight without trying to
  • Feeling full after eating small amounts
  • Worsening of cirrhosis or hepatitis symptoms
  • Stomach pain or pain near the shoulder blade on your right side

Diagnosis of liver cancer

Your doctor will want to examine you to see if you have any swelling in your stomach or yellowing of your eyes or skin.

Afterward, your doctor might want to do some tests, such as:

  • Blood tests to see how well your liver works
  • Imaging tests, such as CT scans or ultrasounds, to get a better look at your liver
  • Biopsies to take a sample of liver tissue that your doctor can look at under a microscope

Treatments for liver cancer

Before coming up with a treatment plan, your doctor will consider several things when they're deciding how to treat your liver cancer. The doctor will think about how much the disease has spread around your body and how healthy you are otherwise. Side effects and success rates are other things to consider.

Common treatments include:

  • Localized treatments — doctors deliver these treatments directly to the cancer cells to kill them, examples include freezing or heating the cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy — technicians direct rays of energy to your liver area to help shrink or kill the cancer cells.
  • Chemotherapy — you might take chemotherapy medications by mouth or in injection form.
  • Immunotherapy — when you get immunotherapy, you get a special drug that helps your immune system kill the cancer cells.
  • Alternative treatments — things like massage, acupuncture and music therapy can help reduce pain.

Recovery from liver cancer

The earlier you detect liver cancer, the better your chances for recovery are. The five-year survival rate is 17%. That almost doubles if you’re diagnosed before the cancer spreads outside your liver to the rest of your body, according to the American Cancer Society. The survival rate also goes up if you can have surgery to remove the cancer.

Find a liver cancer doctor nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you