Liver cancer, in general, is of two types, primary and secondary. The basic difference between the two is that primary liver cancer develops in the liver, while secondary liver cancer does not originate in the liver itself. Instead, it is caused by the cancerous cells that break away from the primary cancerous tumors of the other parts of the body, and enter the liver to cause metastatic tumors.
Any type of primary cancer usually spreads to the other parts of the body through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system. Sometimes, it can also spread to the surrounding tissues by local extension. The majority of the blood from the different organs enters the liver, as it filters blood by eliminating the toxic material. However, in the process, the liver becomes an easy victim to the cancerous cells, that pass into the bloodstream. So, secondary liver cancer develops due to spread of cancer cells from other parts of the body, like the lungs, stomach, pancreas, gastrointestinal tract, and lymphatic system.
In the initial stage, it may not show any symptom(s), i.e. asymptomatic, or it may produce symptoms that may not be specific to this disease. For example, symptoms like loss of weight and appetite, fever, and anorexia may be present, but they are not specific to liver cancer only. These types of symptoms can be caused by some other health-related problems as well.
An abnormally enlarged and hardened liver can be considered as the typical symptom of this type of cancer. This in turn, creates a feeling of discomfort in the upper right portion of the abdomen. Liver tenderness can be another symptom of liver cancer. Occasionally, abnormal enlargement of the spleen, known as splenomegaly has been observed amongst patients.
Jaundice may or may not be present during the early stage. However, at an advanced stage, jaundice gradually worsens due to a blockage of the bile ducts which carry bile from the liver to the small intestine. Due to the blockage of the bile ducts, bile flows back into the bloodstream, which causes the yellow coloration of the skin and the white portion of the eye.
Then serous fluid accumulates in the peritoneal or abdominal cavity, which is also known as ascites or distension of the abdominal cavity. Ultimately, an individual experiences confusion and drowsiness, due to the accumulation of toxic material in the brain, as the severely damaged liver fails to filter blood as it should. This condition is referred to as liver encephalopathy.
- Unfortunately, this disease is usually detected while it is in the advanced stage. However, hepatomegaly or abnormal enlargement of the liver can suggest liver cancer.
- Usually, blood tests are carried out, but they are not considered confirmatory tests in the diagnosis of liver cancer. This is because, abnormal results of these tests can be caused by many disorders other than liver metastases.
- Ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and CT scan of the liver, are helpful in detecting liver cancer. But these may not be able to distinguish cancer from liver cirrhosis and other problems associated with the liver.
- Liver biopsy is carried out, if these tests fail to give a clear picture, and also to gather more information about the cancerous tumors.
The treatment of liver cancer depends on the extent to which the disease has spread, and also on the origin and nature of the primary cancer. The usual treatment includes chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgical removal of the tumors. But, surgery is carried out only if the number of tumors are few and restricted to a particular area. In such a case, surgery can provide a permanent cure, whereas, other treatment options like chemotherapy and radiation therapy fail to provide a permanent cure. Chemotherapy can prolong the lifespan of the affected person, while radiation therapy can be used for relieving severe pain.
The life expectancy of a patient suffering from liver metastases, obviously depends on when it is diagnosed, but also depends on the treatment options that are undertaken. Nevertheless, on an average, when chemotherapy is used as a treatment method, the 1-year survival rate is about 10 - 15%, and a 3-year survival has a 5% chance.
When chemoembolization is used to treat the patient, a 1-year survival chance jumps up to around 50%, and a 5-year survival is around 10 - 15% likely. Treatment with hepatectomy increases the 1-year survival rate to almost 75%, while a 5-year survival becomes 60% likely. Lastly, a liver transplant increases the 1-year survival chance to more than 80%, and makes a 5-year survival 75% likely.
The stage at which this cancer is detected, can have an impact on the treatment of the disease. So, any problem associated with the liver should not be neglected. Even vague symptoms like weight loss, loss of appetite, and discomfort in the right side of the upper abdomen, should be addressed properly by consulting an experienced physician.