Hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common type of malignant liver cancer. Primary liver cancers are rare and the condition usually occurs as secondary to viral hepatitis or cirrhosis. Patient prognosis depends on the size, stage and grade of the tumor at diagnosis.
The symptoms of this condition are usually non-distinct and only occur once the cancer has reached an advanced stage.
Some of the symptoms of hepatocellular carcinoma include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Itchy skin
- Pain and swelling in the abdomen
The liver is the largest solid organ in the body and responsible for hundreds of different functions. Some of the main functions the organ is responsible for include the digestion of lipids and proteins, the removal of toxins, the release of bile to aid digestion and the regulation of coagulation (blood clotting). The development of hepatocellular carcinoma can disrupt these functions or even cause them to fail altogether.
Hepatocellular carcinoma occurs as secondary to viral hepatitis B or hepatitis C infections in around 20% of cases and secondary to cirrhosis in around 80% of cases. Patients with these conditions are categorized as high risk for the development of liver cancer and are therefore monitored on a regular basis using ultrasound to detect cancer development. An unhealthy diet and obesity are also considered as risk factors for liver cancer because these factors increase the risk of alcoholic fatty liver disease.
If diagnosed at an early stage, it may be possible to treat hepatocellular carcinoma. Treatment options during the early stage of disease include surgical resection to remove the affected liver tissue; transplantation with a donor liver and microwave or radiofrequency ablation to destroy the cancer cells. However, this cancer is only diagnosed at an early stage in a small proportion of patients, with most individuals diagnosed once the cancer has spread or metastasized. For these patients, treatment options include chemotherapy to slow progression of the disease and palliative care to alleviate pain and discomfort.
Preventing liver cancer
Certain lifestyle and self-care measures can be taken to reduce the risk of developing liver cancer. Examples of these preventive measures include moderating alcohol intake to reduce the risk of cirrhosis, eating healthily and exercising to reduce the risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and transmitting hepatitis C or B.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc