Liver cancer

What is liver cancer?

The liver is the largest internal organ in the human body. It carries out a number of essential functions that support the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, remove waste and heal wounds. It is responsible for producing bile, which is a substance that helps to digest fats, vitamins, and other nutrients. This vital organ also stores nutrients such as glucose so that body remains nourished at times when there is no food intake. The liver transforms certain nutrients into energy or essential components necessary for the repair, and growth of bodily tissues. It also produces some of the body’s blood-clotting factors and removes toxins from the body.

Liver cancer is a life-threatening illness and is considered one of the most rapidly spreading forms of cancer. Once it develops within the liver, it destroys liver cells and interferes with the ability of the liver to function as expected. 

There are mainly two kinds of liver cancer: Primary and Secondary

  • Primary cancer starts in the liver itself.
  • Secondary cancer spreads to the liver from another part of the body.

What are the signs and symptoms of liver cancer?

The onset and early stages of liver cancer pose a unique challenge as patients may not manifest any symptoms, making it difficult to detect the disease. However, some of them may present with:

  • A lump below the rib cage or pain on the right side of the abdomen, or pain near the right shoulder
  • Jaundice 
  • Unexplained weight loss, nausea, or loss of appetite
  • Fatigue and/or weakness
  • Dark-coloured urine
  • Weight loss with no known reason

What are the risk factors?

Below mentioned are some of the factors that are known to increase the risk of developing liver cancer:

  • Hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection
  • Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection
  • Liver cirrhosis.
  • Excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages
  • Cigarette smoking.
  • Environmental factors such as exposure to certain chemicals

How is liver cancer diagnosed?

Patients with symptoms suspicious of liver cancer will undergo tests to determine the cause of the symptoms.

  • Blood tests such as a liver function test (LFT), check on liver enzymes, proteins, and other substances that show whether the liver is healthy or damaged
  • Ultrasound (Sonography) – This test provides pictures of soft tissue structures
  • Computed tomography (CT) – CT scans provide images that can show changes in the liver and also provides information on tumour size and location. This is usually done to evaluate a concerning finding on a CT scan or after a cancer diagnosis to determine whether the cancer has spread.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) – An MRI scan uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to create detailed images of the inside of the body. MRIs are commonly used where a more detailed examination is required.
  • Hepatic Angiography – Hepatic angiography is an x-ray study of the blood vessels that supply the liver and may be needed if the diagnosis is still doubtful after a CT and MRI scan.
  • Biopsy:  It is a procedure where a small piece of liver tissue is removed and examined under a microscope to check for liver damage.  

It is of utmost importance to get an accurate diagnosis of primary liver cancer in order to treat it effectively.

What are Liver Cancer Stages?

After someone is diagnosed with liver cancer, the healthcare provider will try to find out if it has spread, and if so, how far. This process is referred to as staging. The cancer stage denotes how many cancerous cells are within the body, which helps to determine the severity of the disease and effective treatment strategies.

Liver cancer stages range from stages I through IV. In general, a lower stage number signifies minimal cancer spread while a higher stage number, such as IV, suggests a more advanced spread of cancer.

What are the treatment options?

Hepatectomy: A hepatectomy is a surgery performed to remove a portion of the liver. This surgery is typically used only for early-stage liver cancer.

Liver transplantation:  A liver transplant involves replacing the entire liver with a healthy liver from a suitable donor. A transplant is considered if the cancer has not spread to other organs.

Ablation: It is a procedure of surgical destruction of liver tumours without removing them

Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy can be given orally, or intravenously through a vein in the arm.  Drugs used in it destroy rapidly growing cells.

Radiation therapy:  It is an option when the individual is not responding to the treatment or if treatment is not possible, especially in advanced cases. 

Immunotherapy:  Immunotherapy is a treatment that utilizes the immune system to fight cancer.  The body’s disease-fighting immune system may not attack cancer cells because the cancer cells produce proteins that blind the immune system cells. Immunotherapy is a treatment that stops these proteins from working, so the immune system can identify and fight the cancer cells. Typically, immunotherapy treatments are prescribed for individuals with advanced liver cancer.

Targeted Drug Therapy:  This focuses on addressing specific abnormalities present within cancer cells. These treatments work by obstructing these abnormalities, which can lead to the death of cancer cells.

What are the Preventive measures?

Prevention consists of avoiding the risk factors and increasing protective factors.

One can lower the risk of developing liver cancer by following a healthy lifestyle that includes regular physical activity, weight management, and a healthy diet with limited amounts of alcohol.

What are the treatment side effects for any type of cancer? 

Cancer treatment such as targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and radiation therapy can damage normal cells too. These therapies can cause side effects like hair loss, mouth sores, vomiting, Loss of appetite, fatigue, nausea, and diarrhoea. Sometimes there will be an increased chance of infections.

Talking with the healthcare provider about the side effects of the treatment would be very helpful. Often, it is possible to control these side effects.

How to cope with the diagnosis of cancer?  

A cancer diagnosis can significantly impact various aspects of an individual’s life. It is likely for the affected person to experience a wide range of emotions, including fear, sadness, anxiety, anger, and frustration. These are all very common reactions for cancer patients. Many patients feel worried, depressed, and stressed when dealing with cancer.  Cancer also often creates practical and financial issues. Cancer treatment can be mentally and physically challenging for an individual. Talking with healthcare professionals about any problems or concerns and working together to ease the effect of cancer and its symptoms on daily life would be very beneficial.

Here are some tips:

  • Talk with your family members or friends
  • Speak with a counsellor
  • Ask your healthcare professional about treatment for depression or anxiety
  • Remain socially active
  • Join a cancer support group

To help yourself stay healthier, try to:

  • Eat a healthy diet, with high-protein foods
  • Drink plenty of water, fruit juices, and other liquids
  • Keep yourself physically active
  • Take rest as much as needed

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