Signs of liver cancer: what are the warning signs of liver cancer?
The liver is one of the most active organs in your body and has many vital functions. And, health experts say everyone should be concerned about liver health, especially as cases of liver cancer is on the rise in the United States in recent decades.
“The liver is one of the organs that people might not think about a lot or talk about a lot, but it’s a very important organ,” explains Dr. Anjana Pillai, MDassociate professor of medicine and medical director of the Liver Tumor Program at the University of Chicago Medicine.
The most important role of the liver is to filter harmful substances from the blood, which are then flushed out of the body, according to Cleveland Clinic. It also makes bile, a substance that helps digest fats, and turns what you eat and drink into nutrients that are used for energy.
Liver cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow so quickly that they replace normal cells. Primary liver cancer starts in liver tissue, and the most common type is hepatocellular carcinoma. Another type, called metastatic liver cancer, starts in another part of the body and travels to the liver.
The tricky thing is that liver cancer (and other liver diseases) don’t usually show symptoms in the early stages, says Pillai. But, there are several things you need to know about the disease, including who is at risk, when to get tested, and how it’s treated.
Who is most at risk for liver cancer?
According to American Liver Foundation. The risk also increases for people with a family history of cancer.
Liver disease is often linked to alcoholism, which stigmatizes the conditions, said Dr. Tamar Taddei, MD, co-chair of the National Medical Advisory Board of the American Liver Foundation and associate professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine.
The truth, she says, is that millions of Americans suffer from liver disease and they are not necessarily alcohol drinkers.
Although alcohol is toxic to the liver and long-term alcohol abuse may increase the risk of cirrhosis, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Viral hepatitis and conditions such as obesity and diabetes also increase the risk of cirrhosis.
Fatty liver disease occurs when liver cells store too much fat. Patients tend to have excess fat around their abdomen and may also suffer from diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol, says Dr. Pillai.
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Hepatitis is caused by viruses that cause inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis B is more common in other parts of the world, especially in Africa and the Western Pacific. It is treatable, and there is a vaccine to prevent it.
Hepatitis C is usually passed from person to person through blood and mainly affects people who use intravenous drugs or who received a blood transfusion before 1992. Hepatitis C can be treated but can still lead to liver cancer.
“People who have been treated for hepatitis C, who have advanced fibrosis or cirrhosis remain at high risk for liver cancer,” says Taddei. “The virus has already exerted its damage on the liver in the form of scars and they have yet to be part of a liver cancer surveillance program.”
What are the signs of liver cancer?
Symptoms don’t usually show up in the early stages of liver cancer, Pillai said, “They show more advanced disease.”
These symptoms include:
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- A lump under the rib cage
- Pain on the right side of the abdomen or near the right shoulder
- Jaundice or yellowing of the eyes or skin
- Weight loss or involuntary loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting blood
- Dark colored urine
- Bloating due to fluid in the abdomen
“If you have any of these symptoms, you should see the doctor immediately,” says Pillai. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have liver cancer, but it’s a good idea to get checked out.
Can you reduce your risk of liver cancer?
Liver cancer can be prevented in some cases if you are able to reduce your risk factors, according to the American Cancer Society.
Maintaining a healthy weight is one way to reduce the risk. Pillai says to eat a balanced diet, with limited processed foods and excess fat. Also get plenty of exercise.
Limiting alcohol and smoking also helps. Alcoholism is a disease, Taddei said, and cases of excessive drinking have worsened during the pandemic.
“Alcohol needs to be tackled front and center and completely de-stigmatized,” she said. “Just as we talk about wellness around mindfulness with food and mindfulness with exercise, we need to talk about mindfulness with alcohol.”
Related: 8 signs you may be drinking too much
When to get screened for liver cancer
People at high risk for liver cancer, especially those with cirrhosis, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, should be screened every six months.
Liver cancer can be diagnosed in several different ways, depending on the case, depending on Cleveland Clinic. Blood tests can show the presence of the substance alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), which can signal liver cancer, cirrhosis or hepatitis. High levels of AFP are considered a tumor marker. Ultrasounds, CT scans, MRIs, angiograms, and biopsies can also be used.
Having an annual physical exam and knowing your family history is important, says Pillai.
“Everyone should be checked for hepatitis C and hepatitis B, as these are treatable,” she adds. “Preventive medicine is very important to get annual medical checkups. And then follow up if you see any abnormalities in your liver enzymes.
How liver cancer is treated
Treatments and your chances of recovery depend on the stage at which liver cancer is discovered. Other factors include your general health, how well your liver is working, the symptoms you have, and your AFP levels.
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Other treatments could include ablation therapy, where tumors are destroyed without being removed, and chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and loco-regional therapy, where heat-emitting or radiation-emitting beads are injected into blood vessels.
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