Liver cancer is cancer that begins in the cells of your liver. Your liver is a football-sized organ that sits in the upper right portion of your abdomen, beneath your diaphragm and above your stomach.
The most common form of liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma, which begins in the main type of liver cell (hepatocyte). Other types of cells in the liver can develop cancer, but these are much less common.
Not all cancers that affect the liver are considered liver cancer. Cancer that begins in another area of the body — such as the colon, lung or breast — and then spreads to the liver is called metastatic cancer rather than liver cancer. And this type of cancer is named after the organ in which it began — such as metastatic colon cancer to describe cancer that begins in the colon and spreads to the liver.
Diagnosing liver cancer
Tests and procedures used to diagnose liver cancer include:
- Blood tests. Blood tests may reveal liver function abnormalities.
- Imaging tests. Your doctor may recommend imaging tests, such as an ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT) scan and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
- Removing a sample of liver tissue for testing. During a liver biopsy, a sample of tissue is removed from your liver and examined under a microscope. Your doctor may insert a thin needle through your skin and into your liver to obtain a tissue sample. Liver biopsy carries a risk of bleeding, bruising and infection.
Determining the extent of the liver cancer
Once liver cancer is diagnosed, your doctor will work to determine the extent (stage) of the cancer. Staging tests help determine the size and location of cancer and whether it has spread. Imaging tests used to stage liver cancer include CT, MRI and bone scan.
There are different methods of staging liver cancer. One method uses Roman numerals I through IV, and another uses letters A through D. Your doctor uses your cancer's stage to determine your treatment options and your prognosis. Stage IV and stage D indicates the most advanced liver cancer with the worst prognosis.
Treatments and drugs
Treatments for primary liver cancer depend on the extent (stage) of the disease as well as your age, overall health and personal preferences.
Liver cancer treatment options may include:
- Surgery to remove a portion of the liver. In certain situations, your doctor may recommend partial hepatectomy to remove the liver cancer and a small portion of healthy tissue that surrounds it if your tumor is small and your liver function is good.
Whether this is an option for you also depends on the location of your cancer within the liver.
- Liver transplant surgery. During liver transplant surgery, your diseased liver is removed and replaced with a healthy liver from a donor. Liver transplant surgery is only an option for a small percentage of people with early-stage liver cancer.
- Freezing cancer cells. Cryoablation uses extreme cold to destroy cancer cells. During the procedure, your doctor places an instrument (cryoprobe) containing liquid nitrogen directly onto liver tumors. Ultrasound images are used to guide the cryoprobe and monitor the freezing of the cells.
- Heating cancer cells. In a procedure called radiofrequency ablation, electric current is used to heat and destroy cancer cells. Using an ultrasound or CT scan as a guide, your surgeon inserts one or more thin needles into small incisions in your abdomen. When the needles reach the tumor, they're heated with an electric current, destroying the cancer cells.
- Injecting alcohol into the tumor. During alcohol injection, pure alcohol is injected directly into tumors, either through the skin or during an operation. Alcohol causes the tumor cells to die.
- Injecting chemotherapy drugs into the liver.Chemoembolization is a type of chemotherapy treatment that supplies strong anti-cancer drugs directly to the liver. During the procedure, chemotherapy drugs are injected into the hepatic artery — the artery from which liver cancers derive their blood supply — and then the artery is blocked. This serves to cut blood flow to the cancer cells and to deliver chemotherapy drugs to the cancer cells.
- Radiation therapy. This treatment uses high-powered energy beams to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. During radiation therapy treatment, you lie on a table and a machine directs the energy beams at a precise point on your body. Radiation therapy for liver cancer may involve a technique called stereotactic radiosurgery that simultaneously focuses many beams of radiation at one point in the body.
- Targeted drug therapy. Targeted drugs work by interfering with a tumor's ability to generate new blood vessels. They have been shown to slow or stop advanced hepatocellular carcinoma from progressing for a few months longer than with no treatment. More studies are needed to understand how targeted therapies, such as the drug sorafenib (Nexavar), may be used to control advanced liver cancer.