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What is Liver Cancer?

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Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

In the United States, the number of people diagnosed with liver cancer is fairly low as compared with the rest of the world. A person’s lifetime risk of getting liver cancer in the U.S is about 1 in 132.

In 2010, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) reported 24,120 new liver cancer cases. Of those, 18,910 people are estimated to die from the disease. In sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world, liver cancer is the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer.

The annual global death rate for liver cancer is more than 700,000, according to the World Health Organization.

To understand what liver cancer is, it is important to first understand how the liver — the largest organ inside the human body — functions, and what it does to sustain life.

The liver is a pyramid-shaped organ that lies underneath your right ribs, just below the right lung. It is divided into right and left lobes and is uniquely fed blood from two sources.

The hepatic artery pumps in oxygen-rich blood and the portal vein pushes nutrient-rich blood absorbed from the intestines to the liver where it is broken down and stored.

In addition, the liver is responsible for making clotting factors needed to stop bleeding from a cut or injury and it breaks down toxic wastes in the blood and removes them from the body. For these reasons and others, it is impossible to live without your liver.

With so many jobs to do, it is easy to understand why the liver is made up of so many different kinds of cells. But with such an array of cells available, the liver has ample opportunity for a variety of tumors to form. Some of these tumors can be cancerous and some are not.

When a cancerous tumor develops in the liver, it is called a primary tumor. If the tumor cells break off and form elsewhere in the body it is called secondary tumor. For example, if liver cancer cells breaks off and spreads to the intestines, it is treated as metastatic liver cancer, not as intestinal cancer.

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common form (about 75 percent) of liver cancer in adults, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Some HCC starts as a single tumor that grows larger and can spread to other parts of the liver in the later stages. In the U.S. cirrhosis is the most commonly seen cell growth pattern of this type.

Another type of liver cancer, called bile duct cancer or cholanglocarcinoma, accounts for 10-20 percent of all liver cancers. It originates in the bile ducts that feed the gallbladder.

Other rare types of liver cancer start in the blood vessels feeding the liver. These are very fast growing and are hard to treat. They often grow so quickly that by the time they are discovered they are inoperable. Treatment may help slow the growth of these types of liver cancer.

Hepatoblastoma is a rare type of liver cancer found in children younger than 4 years old. About 70 percent of these children experience good outcomes with surgery and chemotherapy. Early treatment has a 90 percent survival rate, according to ACS.

The majority of liver cancer cases are diagnosed in adult men and women ages 45-70, with men being diagnosed nearly three times as often as women. Asian Americans have the highest incident of liver cancer of any ethnic group in the U.S., probably because they have a higher incidence of hepatitis B, the primary cause of most liver cancers worldwide, reports the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. An estimated 300 million people worldwide are infected with hepatitis B.

Other risk factors include: hepatitis C (having hepatitis B and C together greatly increases your odds of developing liver cancer), having a close relative with hepatitis and liver cancer, or having cirrhosis from hepatitis, drinking too much alcohol for many years, or being a alcoholic.

NCI reports obesity and diabetes have also been shown to be important risk factors for liver cancer. If you are not already infected by hepatitis B, the HBV vaccine can prevent the infection. Researchers are working on a hepatitis C vaccine.

Early liver cancer often has no symptoms. As the disease progresses, patients may notice stomach pain and bloating with or without a lump, fever, nausea and vomiting, unintended weight loss, feeling tired, and jaundice.

These symptoms are typical of many other conditions and may not be cancer. See your doctor immediately if you experience them. As with any cancer, an early diagnosis and treatment is key to the best outcome.

Doctors stage liver cancer to determine the best way to treat it. Surgery is seen as the best treatment option for recovery, along with radiation and chemotherapy. A person’s prognosis depends on the cancer’s stage and treatment options and other health factors.

In general, the five-year survival rate is better for people who are able to have the cancer surgically removed, regardless of the stage, at 50 percent. For early stage liver cancer where a liver transplant is used, the five-year survival rate is around 70 percent. ACS has detailed information on how liver cancer is staged.

Lynette Summerill, an award-winning writer and scuba enthusiast lives in San Diego, CA with her husband and two canine kids. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in newspapers and magazines around the world.

National Cancer Institute. What you need to know about liver cancer. Accessed online 20 Sep 2011 at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/liver

American Cancer Society. Liver Cancer Overview Accessed online 20 Sep 2011 at:

US Dept of Health and Human Services, Offices of Women’s Health. Minority women’s health. Liver cancer. Accessed online 20 Sep 2011 at: http://www.womenshealth.gov/minority-health/asian-americans/liver-cancer.cfm

National Cancer Institute. SEER Data Fact Sheet. Liver cancer. Accessed online 20 Sep 2011 at:

World Health Organization. Cancer Fact Sheet. Accessed online 20 Sep 2011 at:

Reviewed September 22, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.