Liver Cancer Awareness

Liver Cancer Awareness: Causes, Signs & Symptoms

October is Liver Cancer Awareness month.

In many countries liver cancer is the most common type of cancer, with more than 800,000 people diagnosed each year world-wide. The liver is necessary for survival.

Functions of the Liver

More than 500 vital functions have been identified with the liver. Some of the more well-known functions include the following:

  • Production of bile, which helps carry away waste and break down fats in the small intestine during digestion
  • Production of certain proteins for blood plasma
  • Production of cholesterol and special proteins to help carry fats through the body
  • Conversion of excess glucose into glycogen for storage (glycogen can later be converted back to glucose for energy) and to balance and make glucose as needed 
  • Regulation of blood levels of amino acids, which form the building blocks of proteins
  • Processing of hemoglobin for use of its iron content (the liver stores iron)
  • Conversion of poisonous ammonia to urea (urea is an end product of protein metabolism and is excreted in the urine)
  • Clearing the blood of drugs and other poisonous substances
  • Regulating blood clotting
  • Resisting infections by making immune factors and removing bacteria from the bloodstream
  • Clearance of bilirubin, also from red blood cells. If there is an accumulation of bilirubin, the skin and eyes turn yellow. 
  • Source: hopkinsmedicine.org

Causes of Liver Cancer

Hepatocellular carcinoma accounts for most liver cancers. This type of cancer occurs more often in men than women, and is usually seen in people age 50 or older. However, the age varies in different parts of the world.

In most cases, the cause of liver cancer is usually scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). Cirrhosis may be caused by: Alcohol consumption, Autoimmune diseases of the liver, Hepatitis B or C viral infections, Chronic inflammation of the liver, and Iron overload in the body (haemochromatosis).

Risk Factors for Liver Cancer

Factors that may increase the risk of primary liver cancer include:

  • Alcohol Consumption – Alcohol has been declared a Group 1 carcinogen, which means that there is sufficient evidence that it causes cancer in humans.
  • Exposure to aflatoxins – Consuming foods contaminated with fungi that produce aflatoxins.
  • Age – In developing countries of Asia and Africa, liver cancer diagnosis tends to occur between 20 and 50.
  • Liver diseases that can increase the risk for liver cancer include haemochromatosis and Wilson’s disease.
  • Individuals with this blood sugar disorder have a greater risk of liver cancer.
  • Gender – Research shows that men are more likely to develop liver cancer than are women.
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • Obesity – Having an unhealthy body mass index increases the risk of liver cancer.

Signs and Symptoms of Liver Cancer

Most people don’t have signs and symptoms in the early stages of primary liver cancer. When signs and symptoms do appear, it may include: Loss of appetite, Upper abdominal pain, Nausea and vomiting, Losing weight without trying to do so, General weakness and fatigue, Enlargement of the liver, Enlarged spleen, Distended abdomen, Yellow discoloration of the skin and the white of the eyes (jaundice), Dark urine, Pale (sometimes nearly white), Chalky stools, Easy bruising or bleeding, and Fever.

Diagnosis of Liver Cancer

The following procedures contribute towards the diagnosis of liver cancer and may be ordered by your treating physician:

  • Ultrasound – A test that uses sound waves to look for masses in the liver.
  • Computed tomography (CT) – The CT scan is an x-ray test that produces detailed cross-sectional images of your body.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) – Like CT scans, MRI scans provide detailed images of soft tissues in the body, but use radio waves and strong magnets instead of X-rays.
  • Angiography – An angiogram is an x-ray test for looking at blood vessels. Contrast medium, or dye, is injected into an artery to outline blood vessels while x-ray images are taken.

Source: CANSA Fact Sheet on Liver Cancer

Liver cancer in children

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