What is liver cancer?
There are two different types of liver cancer, primary and secondary. Primary liver cancer begins in the liver, whereas secondary liver cancer has developed elsewhere in the body but spread to the liver.
The two most common types of Primary liver cancer are:
- Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) — This cancer starts in the main cells of the liver which are called hepatocytes. It is the most common of the primary liver cancers.
- Bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) — Begins in the cells lining the bile duct.
Furthermore, there are two rarer types including:
- Fibrolamellar HCC — This rarer type of primary liver cancer is more common among adolescents and young adults with no history of liver disease.
- Angiosarcoma – A rare primary liver cancer that starts in the inner lining of blood vessels in the liver. There are only around 10 cases of Angiosarcoma reported in the U.K annually.
What are the effects on the body?
Unfortunately, the symptoms of liver cancer often don’t show up until the cancer has developed and is at an advanced stage. The symptoms can often seem the result of a more common illness, which is why it is important to recognise them and get them checked by your doctor as soon as possible. Symptoms associated with primary liver cancer may include:
- Feeling tired or weak
- Swelling of the abdomen
- Pain in the liver area
- Yellowing of the skin and whites of your eyes (known as jaundice)
- Vomiting or feeling sick frequently
- Weight loss (not related to dieting – unintentional)
- Itchy skin
- Loss of appetite
- Fever/high temperature
Symptoms of secondary liver cancer are as above but you may also have flu-like symptoms.
The signs and symptoms of both primary or secondary liver cancer can take a while to appear – often not until the later stages of the disease, so it is important to talk to your GP if you are concerned. There is currently no UK national screening for primary liver cancer, due to how rare it is and the costs of the scans. So, if you are at high risk of developing it, your GP may schedule more regular checks.
After you are diagnosed with liver cancer, your doctor will need to know what stage it is at. This is how large the cancer is and how far it has spread. These things help your doctor to decide which treatments might work best for you. They will conduct tests and scans and give you as much information as they can about the stage your cancer is at.
Doctors use two systems for describing the size and position of liver cancer:
- Tumour, Node, Metastases (TNM) staging system
- Number staging system (1-4)
In some cases, doctors would further asses the functionality of your liver using two staging systems:
- Child-Pugh system
- BCLC Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer staging system
These look at things like the exact size of the tumour, how quickly the blood clots, brain function, and levels of proteins and substances in your blood that indicate how well the liver is working. You can read a full break down of these systems at Cancer Research’s dedicated page.
What are the causes of liver cancer?
Most liver cancers have unknown causes, but there are some things that might increase a person’s risk of developing it. Most cases of primary liver cancer are associated with damage to or scarring of the liver. This is called cirrhosis.
Cirrhosis can be caused by:
- Excessive drinking of alcohol over a long period of time
- Hepatitis B or hepatitis C viral infections – long term hepatitis B or C
- Inherited diseases of the liver such as haemochromatosis which is where your body’s iron levels build up over time, or alpha 1 antitrypsin – a disorder that increases the risk of lung and liver problems (as alpha 1 antitrypsin is a protein that protects the lungs)
- Non-alcohol related fatty liver
Other risk factors for primary liver cancer include:
- Obesity – Type II diabetes as a result of being overweight and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease can prevent the liver from functioning properly
- Smoking – Research has shown that almost a quarter (20%) of liver cancers in the UK are caused by smoking
- Low immunity – this could be due to HIV, AIDS, or due to medication taken after another illness or previous organ transplants
Your liver is the second-largest organ in your body and has some very important jobs. Read our blog Your liver and you — why it’s vital to maintain a healthy relationship to see how you can keep it as healthy as possible. We also have 8 Tips for keeping your liver healthy for you to try.
Treatments and relief
The treatment of diagnosed primary or secondary liver cancer is unique to each case as it depends on the type, size and stage of the cancer and the individual’s health.
One of the most common treatments for liver cancer is a complete liver transplant, the removal of the affected section of the organ. Other treatments include:
- Chemotherapy directly into the liver and cutting off the blood supply to the tumour (chemeombolisation of TACE)
- Radiotherapy – the use of radiation, usually, x-rays to treat cancer cells, however, this is not a common treatment for liver cancer.
You may be able to significantly reduce your chances of developing liver cancer by:
- Reduce alcohol consumption
- Hepatitis B vaccination
- Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet
- Exercising regularly
- Taking steps to reduce your risk of becoming infected with hepatitis B and C – these including practicing safe sex, avoiding direct exposure to blood and blood products, choosing tattoo parlours carefully and not sharing any personal care items
The information in this article is intended as general advice only. If you or your family members require medical advice or have any medical concerns, please contact your GP.
Please note that not all conditions discussed above are covered by every CS Healthcare plan. For more information on what is covered please visit our FAQ page or speak to one of our friendly sales advisers on 0800 917 4325^