What is liver cancer? Symptoms, causes and prevention

The liver helps remove toxins and in the filtering of blood coming from the intestines which is part of the digestion of food. It is the largest glandular organ in the body and it is situated mostly on the top right side of the tummy protected by the rib cage. Liver cancer is an illness caused by cells dividing uncontrollably in the liver, which causes lumps of tissues called tumours. Tumours can be benign or cancerous which may spread to other parts of the body. The severity of cancers affecting it depends on where it is located in the liver, the type of cancer and how advanced the cancer is. This guide will explore liver cancer, highlighting the causes, symptoms and prevention/treatments available.

What is liver cancer?

Liver cancer refers to any type of cancer that affects the liver. It is a condition causing cells to grow and reproduce uncontrollably in the body. These cells, called cancerous cells, destroy healthy cells and tissues (such as organs) as they develop and continue to spread. Therefore, liver cancer can affect normal liver function as well as damage other surrounding tissues/organs.

The process of spreading to different parts of the body, from where the cancer began originally, is referred to as metastasis. Primary liver cancer starts in the liver, while secondary liver cancer is a cancer that has spread from another part of the body onto the liver.

The most common types of primary liver cancers include:

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma: this is the most common type of primary liver cancer as it makes up around 75% of all liver cancers. It affects the main liver cells, called hepatocytes, and can spread to the small intestines, pancreas and stomach. Alcohol abuse makes a person more likely to develop this type of cancer.
  • Cholangiocarcinoma: this type of cancer develops in the bile ducts, which are small tubes carrying bile to the gallbladder. Cholangiocarcinoma accounts for 10 to 20% of all liver cancers in the UK.
  • Liver angiosarcoma: this type of cancer is rarer, and develops in the liver’s blood vessels.

What are the symptoms of liver cancer?

Liver cancer may not have any symptoms or be difficult to spot. Symptoms of liver cancer include:

  •       Unexplained weight loss
  •       Fatigue
  •       Weakness
  •       Abdominal pain
  •       Nausea
  •       Vomiting
  •       Abdominal swelling
  •       Chalky/white stools
  •       Jaundice (yellowing of the skin/whites of the eyes)

It is essential to note that the symptoms abovementioned aren’t necessarily a sign of cancer. However, it is important that you see your GP to assess any such symptoms.

What are the causes of liver cancer?

The causes of liver cancer vary and aren’t always clear in an individual. Liver cancer can occur in perfectly healthy individuals for unknown reasons. However, the following risk factors increase the likelihood of getting liver cancer:

  • Hepatitis B or C increases your risk of developing liver cancer as it can cause serious damage to your liver.
  • Cirrhosis causes scars in the liver, which prevents it from functioning properly. This can in turn lead to health complications such as liver cancer.
  • A family history of liver cancers and other liver diseases (such as haemochromatosis and Wilson’s disease) also increases your risk of developing liver cancer.
  • Diabetes can cause liver problems that contribute to the development of liver cancer.
  • Obesity can also increase your risk of developing liver cancer, particularly through non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (build-up of fat in the liver).
  • Alcoholism can cause irreversible liver damage that can lead to liver cancer. 
  • Aflatoxin exposure can also increase your risk of liver cancer. Aflatoxin is a toxic substance produced by mould that can grow on crops such as nuts and cereals.

How to prevent and treat liver cancer

Prevention

There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing conditions that can lead to liver cancer. These include:

  • Having a hepatitis B vaccination: this is typically given to all children and adults at a higher risk of getting hepatitis B infection or complications from it.
  • Reduce your risk of getting hepatitis B and C by practising safe sex and do not use intravenous drugs.
  • Ensure that any tattoo, body piercing, medical or dental procedure that you might have is performed only in a hygienic environment with sterilised equipment.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation: Excessive alcohol intake can cause severe liver damage and diseases such as cirrhosis. Stay within NHS recommended alcohol limits.
  • Do not share razors or toothbrushes.
  • Maintain a healthy BMI: stay active and eat a healthy, balanced diet to avoid the accumulation of fats in the liver.

Treatment

Treatment will depend on what stage the cancer is at (i.e. how advanced the condition is). This may include one or more of the following:

  • Hepatectomy to remove part or all of the liver (a transplant will be needed if the whole liver is removed).
  • Embolization and chemoembolization to block off the blood supply to the cancer.
  • Chemotherapy to kill cancer cells with medicines.
  • Radiotherapy to kill other cancer cells with high doses of radiation.
  • Ablation to destroy the cancer cells through heat, electric current or ethanol injections.
  • Targeted drug therapy to kill cancerous cells by focusing on specific abnormalities within the liver cancer cells.

How can I get tested for liver cancer?

At a clinic

At present, there is no routine screening test for liver cancer in the UK. However, you can opt for our Complete health assessment package, which includes a liver function test that is used to detect liver damage.

Our Cancer Awareness Health Assessments are available for those over 40 years old who would like to assess their risk of certain cancers, as well as include a liver function check. We offer a “Female Cancer Risk Health Assessment” for women, which estimates the risk of bowel, stomach and ovarian cancer. We also offer a Male Cancer risk Health Assessment for men, which includes a bowel, stomach and prostate cancer risk assessment.

Our packages consist of in-depth, face-to-face health checks with a Health Assessment Specialist, which you can easily book online at one of over 2,000 mobile clinics available nationwide. You will receive a wide array of other key health markers and a detailed results report sent through the post.