What are the symptoms of liver cancer? How is it treated?

Q: How do I know if I have liver cancer and how has treatment improved?

A: In the early stages, most people usually have no symptoms of liver cancer. However, as the cancer grows, you will begin to notice subtle symptoms such as sudden weight loss, loss of appetite, upper abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.

If you are diagnosed with liver cancer, survival rates have increased dramatically due to improvements in surgical oncology. In the early 2000s, liver cancer survivability was measured over five-year survival periods and was generally less than 50%. However, we are now able to remove almost all liver nodules thanks to advances in surgical techniques as well as chemotherapy. As a result, we now measure survival over 10-year periods – with survival rates over 50%.

The standard is to remove the cancer before it gets too big. It is also easier to perform successful and effective surgery for liver cancer when the tumor is small. Surgery is almost always the first step in treatment if the tumor is still small.

However, if the tumors are not detected until later, then instead of therapy or organ-directed treatment, a patient will undergo systemic therapy. Systemic treatments include chemotherapy and radiation therapy which are used to treat one or more of the body’s systems as a means of treating cancer.

It is also important to understand the risk factors for liver cancer, including:

— Chronic liver infections with hepatitis B or hepatitis C.

— Cirrhosis – progressive scarring of the liver.

— Diabetes.

— Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

— Being exposed to aflatoxins.

— Drink alcohol to excess.

— Congenital malformations.

— Hemochromatosis (a condition in which your body stores too much iron).

One of the best things you can do to prevent liver cancer is to control your risk factors. This can include things like improving your diet, reducing or eliminating alcohol and tobacco use, and updating your hepatitis vaccines.

Dr. Alan Koffron is a surgical specialist with University Surgical Associates and a member of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society

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