Knowing the Signs of Liver Cancer Could Save Your Life

There are lots of sayings that highlight body parts. “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach…” “I’m all ears…” “He’s just pulling your leg…”

One body part that doesn’t pop up in a lot of sayings is the liver, but in spite of its low literary profile, your liver has a high profile in your body. It’s the largest organ inside your body. (Your skin is the largest organ.)

The liver sits above and to the right of your stomach under the rib cage and below your diaphragm.

The liver has a number of functions. It:

  • Makes bile to help digest fat from the foods you eat.
  • Removes toxins and waste from your blood so they can be eliminated from your body.
  • Activates and regulates important hormones.
  • Stores glycogen (sugar) the body uses for energy.

Based on the work the liver does, you can imagine liver diseases, such as liver cancer, are very serious medical problems.

The Basics of Liver Cancer

About 39,000 Americans are diagnosed with primary liver cancer each year. The term “primary” means the cancer started in the liver. Metastatic liver cancer starts somewhere else (for example the colon, lung or breast) and spreads to the liver. This type of cancer is more common than cancers that begin in the liver.

You’re at Higher Risk For Liver Cancer if You:

  • Have (or have had) hepatitis B or C.
  • Heavily use alcohol.
  • Have cirrhosis – chronic scarring and damage to the liver.
  • Have hemochromatosis – an iron storage disease.
  • Are obese or have diabetes.

Symptoms of Liver Cancer

Early liver cancer may not cause symptoms. But after the cancer has grown, the National Institutes of Health says common symptoms include:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen on the right side.
  • Pain near the right shoulder blade or in the back.
  • A lump on your right side just below the rib cage or a heavy feeling in the upper abdomen.
  • Swollen abdomen (bloating).
  • Loss of appetite and feelings of fullness after eating a small meal.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Unusual weakness or fatigue.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Yellow skin and eyes (jaundice), pale stools and dark urine.
  • Easy bruising or bleeding.
  • Unexplained fever.

These symptoms may be caused by liver cancer or other health problems. If you have any of these symptoms, you should tell your doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

Diagnosing Primary Liver Cancer

Your health care professional may use one of several tests or procedures to determine if the problem is liver cancer.

  • Medical history and physical exam
  • Liver function tests or serum tumor marker tests
  • CT (CAT) scan
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Ultrasound exam
  • Biopsy

If liver cancer is diagnosed, there are a number of treatment options. They range from simply keeping an eye on an especially small lesion that may not become a problem, to various therapies or surgery. In more extreme cases a liver transplant may be the best treatment.

Whatever treatment is adopted, the patient will be treated by a team of experts in fighting the disease. Team members will carefully explain to the patient and family the entire process and what to expect during and after treatment.

If you’re at risk for liver cancer, visit with your health care professional about steps you can take to reduce your risk, such as managing weight and/or diabetes. Remember, the earlier we can diagnose liver cancer, the better the chance for a good outcome. The good news is, controlling weight and diabetes will help you take a major step toward reducing your risks for a number of diseases — and it will improve your chances for living well a long time.