Liver cancer is a serious threat to everyone’s life, and it’s a particularly important health concern for men: according to WebMD¹, liver cancer strikes twice as men as women in the United States. But liver cancer doesn’t discriminate.
Because liver cancer can strike anyone, it’s important to be aware of the facts of this life-threatening disease early on. In order to catch liver cancer before it progresses, you need to know its earliest warning signs, its symptoms, and its potential treatment options.
Liver cancer commonly forms as a secondary type of cancer. It’s common for individuals to get diagnosed with one type of cancer and see that cancer spread elsewhere in the body, WebMD² reports. Yet liver cancer on its own is also a concern, as this type of cancer can from due to hepatitis or other health changes.
When caught early on, liver cancer has a promising prognosis. But in order to catch this type of cancer, you’ll need to know as much as you can about it. Here’s what you need to know.
Early Signs of Liver Cancer
Liver cancer is a tricky disease – it’s a tough type of cancer to detect in its earliest stages. The American Cancer Society³ notes that most signs and symptoms of liver cancer don’t show up until the disease is in its later stages, and that it’s very difficult to spot tumors in the liver. So, liver cancer often escape unnoticed until its symptoms are serious and unavoidable.
However, it’s a smart idea to be aware of the potential signs and symptoms of liver cancer so you can visit a doctor as soon as they appear. According to the American Cancer Society⁴, you’ll want to look for the following changes in your health:
- An enlarged liver or spleen
- Pain in the abdomen
- Swelling in the abdomen
- Enlarged, visible veins on the stomach
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling full after eating a small amount
- Unexplained weight loss
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
How Liver Cancer Is Diagnosed
If any of the above changes occur in your health, you’ll want to meet with your doctor to determine what’s happening with your body. At your doctor’s appointment, you’ll be able to rule out – or confirm – liver cancer with some discussion and diagnostic work.
To determine whether or not you’re living with liver cancer, your doctor will likely order a series of different tests. Here are some of the tests you can expect to undergo, per the American Cancer Society⁵:
- A physical exam to check your abdomen, skin, and the whites of your eyes
- Imaging tests, including x-rays, ultrasounds, CT scans, and MRIs, to look for any tumors or examine any suspicious areas within the liver
- An angiogram, which uses contrast or dye to examine the blood vessels
- A bone scan to look for cancer that’s spread to other areas of the body
- A laparoscopy, which is a small outpatient surgery done to confirm a cancer diagnosis or plan treatment
- A biopsy, which tests samples of tissue for cancer
Your doctor may recommend any of these tests alone or in combination to diagnose liver cancer.
Treatment Options for Liver Cancer
Once you are diagnosed with liver cancer, you’ll need to begin considering different treatment options. Liver cancer treatments vary depending on the type of cancer that’s formed, where it’s formed within the liver, and what stage the cancer is in.
Through diagnostic testing, your doctor will be able to determine just how much the cancer has progressed and what treatment options will be best based on your unique case. The American Cancer Society notes that doctors categorize liver cancer into four different stages before beginning treatment:
- Potentially resectable or transplantable (Stage I or some stage II tumors)
- Unresectable (cancers that haven’t yet spread)
- Inoperable with only local disease
- Advanced (Metastatic cancers)
The treatment plan your doctor recommends will be the best suited for whatever type of cancer you have and whether or not it’s progressing rapidly.
Surgery is often an option for those with liver cancer. If your liver is healthy and still functioning, and your tumor is small enough, a surgeon may be able to completely remove the cancer. However, larger tumors can return even after surgery, so it’s important to check with your doctor about whether or not this treatment is suitable for your health and your cancer.
Ablation is a treatment option that destroys a tumor within the liver. It can be done in combination with other treatments, like embolization, to remove the tumor with different nonsurgical procedures.
Therapies come in many forms: targeted therapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy are all possible treatment therapies. These treatment options try to shrink cancer tumors, eliminating them without surgery and killing off any cancerous cells.
Medication is another treatment option for those with healthy or functioning livers. There are different medications available that can control or slow the growth of cancer, and they can extend patients’ lifespans. Some medications can even specifically target cancerous cells to be used in combination with other treatment options.
Transplants are an option for those who have an early stage of liver cancer but who are living with a liver that’s overall unhealthy or a tumor that can’t be easily removed. A liver transplant will replace your liver with a healthy, donated liver – but you’ll likely undergo other treatment options while you wait for a transplant, as the waiting list can be long.
No matter what treatment options you and your doctor choose, there are many different choices that can make you more comfortable, extend your life, and help you deal with the effects and symptoms that accompany liver cancer. The most important action to take is to be informed so you can catch the signs of liver cancer before the disease worsens.