Liver Cancer Symptoms & Treatments

Liver Cancer Symptoms & Treatments

liver picture

What is the liver and what does the liver do?

The liver is the largest internal organ and is the second most important organ in your body. The liver is located under your rib cage on the right side. It weighs about three pounds and is shaped like a football that is flat on one side.

The liver carries out a grab bag of functions; this diversity makes it truly irreplaceable. Among its duties are the following:

  • synthesis and assembly of proteins

  • production of bile, a substance which digests fats

  • helps to manage energy stores and contributes to childhood     growth

  • breaks down toxic substances

  • plays a role in blood pressure management


What is liver Cancer


  • The liver is the largest solid organ in the human body and therefore relatively easy to target;

  • Most liver cancer (greater than 75%) is inoperable upon initial diagnosis; and

  • The standard treatment for inoperable primary liver cancer would lend itself well to the addition of antibody-tagged gold nanoparticles


Liver cancer, also known as hepatic cancer is a cancerr which starts in the liver, and not from another organ which eventually migrates to the liver. In other words, there may be cancers which start from somewhere else and end up in the liver – those are not (primary) liver cancers. 

Cancers that originate elsewhere and eventually reach the liver are known as liver metastasis or secondary liver cancers, and are most commonly from cancer of the GI tract (colon  cancer), lung  cancer, renal cancer (kidney  cancer), ovariann cancer and prostate  cancer. Cancers that originate in the liver are known as primary liver cancers.


What are the signs and symptoms of liver cancer?

A symptom is something the patient feels and reports, while a sign is something other people, such as the doctor detect. For example, pain may be a symptom while a rash may be a sign.

Signs and symptoms of liver cancer tend not to be felt or noticed until the cancer is well advanced. 


When the cancer grows larger, people may notice one or more of these common symptoms:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen on the right side

  • A lump or a feeling of heaviness in the upper abdomen

  • Swollen abdomen (bloating)

  • Loss of appetite and feelings of fullness

  • Weight loss

  • Weakness or feeling very tired

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Yellow skin and eyes, pale stools, and dark urine from jaundice

  • Fever

Other conditions that are not liver cancer may cause these same symptoms.

What Causes Liver Cancer?

Primary liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma) tends to occur in livers damaged by birth defects, alcohol abuse, or chronic infection with diseases such as hepatitis B and C, hemochromatosis (a hereditary disease associated with too much iron in the liver), and cirrhosis. More than half of all people diagnosed with primary liver cancer have cirrhosis — a scarring condition of the liver commonly caused by alcohol abuse. Hepatitis B and C and hemochromatosis can cause permanent damage and liver failure. Liver cancer may also be linked to obesity and fatty liver disease. 


Live Cancer Treatment


The main treatments for primary liver cancer

The main treatment for early liver cancer is surgery. If you cannot have surgery, you may have treatments such as radiofrequency  ablationchemoe mbolisation or alcohol (ethanol)  injection. For people with advanced hepatocellular cancer (HCC), you may have a biologi cal therapy called sorafenib. You may have chemotherapy as part of a trial.

In some people one type of treatment is all that is needed. However, sometimes treatments are used in combination. Your case will be looked at by several doctors who specialise in different aspects of treatment, but who work together in a team. The team may include

  • A surgeon

  • A specialist in liver diseases (hepatologist)

  • A specialist in diseases of the digestive system (gastroenterologist)

  • One or more cancer specialists (medical or clinical oncologists)

  • An X-ray specialist who can give certain treatments directly to the cancer (such as radio frequency ablation) and uses X-rays or scans to help guide them (interventional radiologist)

Which treatment is best for you will depend on

  • The ty pe of liver cancer you have and where it is in the liver

  • The sta ge of your cancer

  • How well your liver is working

  • Your general health


Surgery for primary liver cancer

Surgery  for liver cancer is the best treatment if the cancer hasn’t spread. There are 2 main options


These operations are both treatments that could possibly cure the cancer. But unfortunately, only a small number of people have cancer diagnosed early enough to benefit from surgery. Your specialist will only consider surgery if the cancer is contained within the liver and has not spread to any other part of the body. Unfortunately, even if the cancer is completely removed there is still a risk that it could come back in the future. This is because cells may have broken away from the cancer before surgery and travelled to a different part of the body.

Liver transplant

Hepato cellular cancer (HCC) is more likely to develop in people with long term liver damage (cirrho sis). Your specialist may suggest a liver transplant if you have cirrhosis of the liver due to previous liver disease, infection with a hepatitis virus, or from long term drinking alcohol. 

Your doctor will only suggest a liver transplant if you have 

  • A single liver tumour that is 5cm across or less

  • Up to 5 tumours that are all 3cm across or less

  • A single tumour 5 to 7cm in size that has not grown for at least six months

To have a liver transplant you need a liver from a donor. It can sometimes take months to find a donated liver that closely matches yours. During this delay, the cancer may continue to grow and you may need to have other treatment to try to control it, such as radio frequency ablation or chemo embolisation.

Unfortunately, if you have very severe cirrhosis you are not likely to be fit enough to have this major surgery. A specialist transplant surgeon will look at all your test results and decide whether you are likely to make a good recovery from the surgery.

For most people with primary liver cancer, a transplant will not help them. It is too big an operation to survive if you are already very ill. Also, if your cancer has already spread outside the liver a transplant will not cure it. You would go through a very major operation, only to find that the cancer started to grow somewhere else. Likewise, if you have a large tumour in the liver or more than 5 tumours, the risk of the cancer coming back is too great to risk such a big operation. After a liver transplant, you have to take drugs to stop your body rejecting the donated liver. These drugs damp down the activity of your immune  system and reduce its ability to control the cancer.

Surgery to remove the cancer (liver resection)

Depending on the site and size of the cancer, surgery can involve removing anything from a small wedge of liver to up to 80% of the liver. The liver tissue that is removed can grow back. Even if you have more than half your liver removed, it can grow back to normal size in a matter of weeks. But the liver does not grow back so well if you have cirrhosis. So you are more likely to have this type of surgery if you do not have cirrhosis.

Fibrola mellar hepato cellular cancer develops more often in people who do not have cirrhosis. It is often possible to remove these cancers with surgery.


Radiofrequency ablation (RFA)

Ablation means destroying. This treatment uses radio waves to heat up the cancer cells until they are killed off. You may have RFA under local or general anaesthetic. You have an ultrasound or CT scan during treatment so that the doctor can see where the cancer is. You have a needle put through the skin directly into the tumour. Radio waves pass down the needle, heating the cancer cells and killing them. Side effects can include pain and sometimes a fever. Your doctor will give you medicines to control these side effects.

You may have this treatment in the outpatient department and be able to go home afterwards, or you may have a short stay in hospital. In some situations, you may have RFA while you are having another operation – either during a laparo scopy or during open surgery. You may need RFA more than once.

You cannot have RFA if the cancer is very big (usually not over 3 or 4 cm) or is close to any major blood vessels.


Microwave ablation

Microwave ablation is a newer treatment. It is similar to radio frequency ablation but it uses slightly different energy waves – microwaves – to destroy the liver cancer. The microwaves heat and kill the cancer cells. You can have this treatment for more than one liver cancer tumour. The doctor puts a thin needle into each tumour. The microwaves are released through the needles. For larger tumours, you may have a number of needles put in, all attached to the microwave generator. For this treatment, you have a general or local anaesthetic.

You may not be able to have this treatment if the tumour is too close to another organ, such as the bowel.


Injecting alcohol into the tumour

This is called a percutaneous ethanol injection (PEI). It means injecting alcohol (ethanol) through the skin, directly into the cancer in the liver. You have this treatment during an ultrasound scan so that the doctor can see exactly where to inject the alcohol.

The alcohol kills the cancer by dehydrating the tissue and stopping its blood supply. This type of treatment is most useful for people who have a small number of tumours, often measuring less than 2cm. You are most likely to have this done under local anaesthetic. During each session, you may have 1 or 2 injections. The number of treatment sessions you have will depend on the size and number of tumours in your liver.

You may have some pain or a high temperature (fever) after this treatment. These side effects can be controlled with medication.




Chemoembolisation, also called trans arterial chemoembolisation (TACE), means you have chemotherapy directly into the liver. Embolisation is a way of cutting off the cancer’s main blood supply. 

After giving the chemotherapy drug, the doctor injects tiny plastic beads or a gelatin sponge. These block the blood vessels to the area of the liver containing the cancer cells. This reduces the supply of oxygen and food to the cancer, and may make it shrink. This may help to control the cancer and reduce symptoms, but it generally cannot cure hepato cellular cancer (HCC). This treatment can cause side effects such as pain, sickness, and a raised temperature for several days after the treatment. Rarely, chemoembolisation can cause damage to the liver which may result in liver damage. So if you have moderate or severe liver cirrhosis you are unlikely to have this treatment. 

Chemoembolisation can be used alone or in combination with other treatments such as surgery or radiofrequency ablation. There is more about chemo embo lisation in this section.



Radioembolisation is a new treatment that is now being used in a number of UK hospitals. It is similar to chemoembolisation, but instead of chemotherapy it uses radiation. Millions of tiny beads (sometimes called microspheres) are fed into the hepatic artery, the main blood vessel which supplies the liver. These beads block the supply of blood to the cancer. They contain a radioactive substance called yttrium-90, so they also work by sending out radiation. This helps to kill off the cancer cells. This treatment may also be called selective internal radiation therapy (SIRT).

Doctors generally use radioembolisation to help with the symptoms of liver cancer, rather than to cure it. It can also be used to treat cancer that has spread to the liver (liver metastases).

The National, Institute for Health and Care Excellence  has issued guidance about radioembolisation for primary liver cancer. They say that there is limited evidence about how well it works, but it may be helpful for some people with liver cancer. They say it should be a treatment option for people as long as the doctor explains

  • How you have radioembolisation 

  • The uncertainty around how well it works

  • The possible risks and benefits

NICE says that doctors should monitor patients closely and register them on the SIRT register. This register aims to find out more about how well this treatment works and monitors side effects. They also recommend that if possible people should have this treatment as part of a clinical trial.


Biological therapy

Biological therapies are treatments that act on processes in cells or change the way that cells signal to each other. They can stimulate the body to attack or control the growth of cancer cells.

If you have an advanced hepatocellular cancer (HCC), you may have sora fenib to help control the cancer’s growth. Sorafenib is a type of biological therapy called a tyro sine kinase inhibitor  (TKI). Tyrosine kinase is a protein which acts as a chemical messenger.



Your specialist may suggest chemo therapy for an advanced liver cancer. The aim of the treatment is to try to slow the growth of the cancer and help control symptoms. Generally speaking, chemotherapy has limited benefits for hepatocellular cancer (HCC), and may cause more severe side effects in people with cirrhosis. If your specialist suggests this treatment, it may be within a clini cal trial to test a new drug or combination of drugs.   

In hepat oblastoma, the type of liver cancer that affects children, chemotherapy is commonly used. Your child’s specialist may suggest it before surgery to shrink the cancer, or after surgery to try to stop the cancer from coming back. 

There is more information about chemo therapy for liver cancer in this section.



Doctors do not often use radio therapy to treat liver cancer as radiation can damage the healthy liver cells. It may be used to treat bile duct cancer (cholan giocarcinoma), but is not usually used for hepato cellular  cancer (HCC).

If you have liver cancer that has spread to other areas of the body, such as the bones, you may have radiotherapy to help treat the area and control symptoms such as pain.

Different ways of giving radiotherapy continue to be looked at in clinical trials for primary liver cancer.


Liver cancer that comes back

If cancer comes back after its initial treatment, this is called a recurrence. Liver cancer can come back in the liver, in nearby organs, or in other parts of the body, such as the lungs and bones.

If your liver cancer comes back, your specialist may suggest more surgery or one of the other treatments mentioned above. This will depend on the type of cancer you have, the treatment you have had before, where the cancer has spread and your general health.


Controlling symptoms

You may hear people refer to cancer treatments as radical or palliative. Radical treatments aim to get rid of the cancer completely. Palliative treatments are used to slow down the growth of the cancer and to relieve symptoms. Palliative treatment may help someone to live longer and to live more comfortably, even if their cancer cannot be cured.

Your specialist may talk to you about palliative treatment if you have primary liver cancer that is quite advanced and not possible to cure. Sometimes people who have liver cancer may be too ill to cope with some of the treatments, particularly if they have other conditions such as cirrhosis or hepatitis. If the cancer has spread outside the liver before it is diagnosed, it cannot be cured. Most cancers cannot be completely cured once they have spread.

Palliative treatment includes painkillers and anti sickness drugs, and treatment to relieve symptoms without aiming to cure the cancer. Surgery, biological therapy,chemotherapy and radiotherapy can all be used as palliative treatments. Your doctor may offer treatment to help control symptoms such as pain, breathing problems, weight loss and jaundice. Sometimes people with liver cancer and cirrhosis may get a build up of fluid in the abdomen (ascites). Your doctor may drain some of the fluid away or prescribe water tablets (diuretics). The copying physicaly section has information about pain control, copying with sickness  and other symptoms.

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Originally posted 2014-06-01 08:40:11.

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