Liver cancer - what you need to know

Stace King
Liver cancer, computer artwork.
Liver cancer, computer artwork.

Primary liver cancer is a relatively rare form of cancer, but a serious one which can be difficult to spot in its early stages. Around 4,000 people per year are diagnosed with this form of the disease in the UK – and it is distinct from secondary, or metastaticliver cancer, in which cancer moves to the liver from another part of the body.

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The early symptoms of primary liver cancer can be vague – making the illness difficult to diagnose until it reaches the advanced stages in many cases. However symptoms include unexplained weight loss, a drop in appetite, feeling extra full after eating (even if you had a small meal), feeling sick and vomiting, a swollen or painful tummy, jaundice (yellowish skin and eyes), itching and feeling fatigued.

If you do have the above symptoms, you shouldn't panic – because you are more likely to have another – less serious – condition. But you should make an appointment to see you GP as soon as possible and voice your concerns.

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The causes of the disease are not fully understood, however it is closely associated with damage and scarring to the liver known as cirrhosis. Heavy alcohol consumption and long-term infection with hepatitis B and C are known to be among the causes of cirrhosis. Obesity and an unhealthy diet have also been linked to the illness, as causes of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Eight out of 10 cases are diagnosed in the over-60s, with two out of three being in men. There has been a significant rise in diagnoses in recent years – with an increase in drinking and obesity among the UK population being put forward as an explanation.

After visiting your GP, you may be referred to a specialist hospital-based consultant. If you are deemed high risk, you could be sent for regular check-ups for the disease. This usually involves ultrasound scans and blood tests. If liver cancer is suspected after these tests, they are likely to be followed up with X-rays and MRI scans, a biopsy aor perhaps a laparoscopy – in which a small camera is inserted into an incision in your abdomen. If you have secondary liver cancer, it is likely to be discovered at the same time as your primary cancer.

Once the illness is confirmed, treatment will be decided by the stage the cancer has reached.
In the early stages treatment is likely to include surgical resection (removing a section of the liver), liver transplant or microwave or radiofrequency ablation – in which microwaves or radio waves are used to destroy the malignant cells.

Unfortunately most cases are detected too late for these treatments to be effective. In advanced cases chemotherapy is used to slow down the cancer's spread and to relieve pain and discomfort.
Sadly only one-in-five patients survive past a year following diagnosis of the illness – and just one-in-twenty survive for another five years.

Treatment for secondary liver cancer will usually be chemotherapy, although some patients choose to forego it because in some cases it can have unpleasant side effects. Some advanced patients may also not be in a fit state to receive the treatments usually given.

For more information check out NHS Choices, Macmillan Cancer Support or the British Liver Trust.

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