Liver Cancer - Causes, Diagnosis, Prevention & Treatment

Image - Human Liver

The liver continuously filters blood that circulates through the body, converting nutrients and drugs absorbed in the digestive tract into ready-to-use chemicals. It also removes toxins and other chemical waste products from the blood and readies them for excretion. Because all the blood in the body must passthrough it, the liver is unusually accessible to cancer cells traveling in the bloodstream. Ironically, while the liver can cleanse the body of ingested or internally produced poisons, it cannot cleanse itself of cancer. Most liver cancer is secondary, meaning the malignancy originated elsewhere in the body-usually the colon, lung, or breast. Primary liver cancer, which starts in the liver, accounts for about 2 per cent of cancers in the United States but up to half of all cancers in some undeveloped countries, mainly because of the prevalence of hepatitis, a contagious virus that predisposes a person to liver cancer. Worldwide, primary liver cancer strikes twice as many men as women and is most likely to affect people over 50.


Primary liver cancer tends to occur in livers damaged by congenital defects or diseases such as hepatitis B and C, and cirrhosis. More than half of all people diagnosed with primary liver cancer have cirrhosis, and those who suffer from hemochromatosis, or iron overload, are at even greater risk.

Various carcinogens are associated with primary liver cancer, including some cholesterol-lowering drugs, certain herbicides, and such chemicals as vinyl chloride and arsenic. Male hormones-androgens or steroids-taken by some athletes can cause benign liver tumors and may promote liver cancer. Aflatoxins, a type of plant mold, are also implicated.

Diagnostic and Test Procedures

Screening for early detection of primary liver cancer is not performed routinely but should be considered by people al high risk for the disease. To diagnose liver cancer, a doctor must rule out other causes of the symptoms. Blood studies that measure tumor markers-substances elevated in the presence of a particular cancer-can aid diagnosis. Ultrasound and CT scans may reveal existing tumors, but only a biopsy will distinguish a benign tumor from a malignant one.


Any liver cancer is difficult to cure. Primary liver cancer is rarely detectable early, when it is most treatable. Secondary liver cancer is hard to treat because it has already spread. Also, the liver's complex network of blood vessels makes surgery difficult. Most therapy concentrates on making patients feel better and perhaps live longer.

Conventional Medicine

Patients with early-stage tumors that can be removed surgically have the best chance of being cured. Unfortunately, most liver cancers are inoperable at diagnosis, either because the cancer is too advanced or the liver is too diseased to permit surgery. In some patients, radiation or chemotherapy reduces their tumors to operable size.

After surgery, chemotherapy or low-dose radiation may help kill remaining cancer cells. Patients in remission must be monitored closely for potential recurrence. A few patients may be eligible for a liver transplant; although the procedure is risky, it offers some chance of cure.

Advanced liver cancer has no standard curative treatment. Chemotherapy and low-dose radiation may control the cancer's spread and ease pain.

Most patients receive strong painkilling medication along with drugs to relieve nausea and swelling or to improve appetite. People with advanced liver cancer may choose to join clinical trials testing new approaches to treatment.

Such studies include freezing tumor cells to kill them; using biological agents such as interferon or interleukin 2 to stimulate immune cells into attacking cancer more vigorously; and delivering lethal agents directly to cancer cells through synthetic proteins designed to target specific tumors.

Complementary Therapies

Pain is a frequent but manageable consequence of advanced liver cancer. Complementary therapies that may prove beneficial include massage, relaxation techniques, body work, biofeedback, hypnotherapy, and acupuncture.


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