In the year 2021, the American Cancer Society estimates that there will be about 42,230 new cases of liver cancer, with around 30,230 people dying as a result.1
Ever wondered, “What is liver cancer?” We are here to help. Liver cancer is caused by the abnormal growth of cells within your liver or another organ.
Several types of cancer can form in your football-sized organ; the most common type is hepatocellular carcinoma which begins in the main type of liver cell, hepatocyte. Cancer can also start somewhere else in your body (like the colon or breast) and spread to your liver. This kind of cancer is called metastatic.
Both kinds of cancer can take a serious toll on this vital organ which is responsible for filtering toxins and storing energy. If you or a loved has been diagnosed with liver cancer, or if you are concerned that you may be experiencing symptoms, read on.
In this guide we will cover:
- The different types and stages of liver cancer
- What causes liver cancer?
- Symptoms of liver cancer
- Preventive measures you can take to reduce the risk of liver cancer
- Liver cancer treatment
Understanding the Different Types and Stages of Liver Cancer
While liver cancer, also called hepatic cancer, is considered rare, there has been an increase in liver cancer rates in the U.S. over the past few decades.
According to the American Cancer Society, “liver cancer incidence has more than tripled since 1980; from 2005 to 2014, the rate increased by about 3% per year.”2
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with this cancer—or if you’re simply interested in learning more about it—it’s important to understand the way your liver functions, and how different types and stages of cancer can affect this organ and the rest of your body.
What is the Liver?
Did you know your liver is your largest internal organ?
This vital organ is located on the upper right side of the body behind your lower ribs. If you were looking at an internal map of your body, you’d find your stomach, intestines, gallbladder, and pancreas in close proximity to the liver.
The liver itself features two lobes on the front and two lobes on the back, with a network of tubes—intrahepatic bile ducts—carrying bile inside the liver. This anatomical breakdown is important because different types of liver cancer can affect different parts of the organ.
The liver serves over 500 functions, but the primary functions of the liver include:4
- Storing nutrients
- Removing waste products
- Removing worn out cells
- Filtering and processing chemicals found in food, alcohol, and medication
- Producing bile—contrary to any negative connotations you may have with this word, bile is a good thing. Bile is a digestive fluid that breaks down fats.
Now that you have a better understanding of how your liver serves your body, let’s explore the ways in which cancer can negatively affect this organ.
Different Kinds of Liver Cancer
Cancer that starts in your liver is called primary liver cancer, while a cancer that starts in another organ and spreads to your liver is called secondary or metastatic liver cancer.
The primary types of liver cancers include:
- Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) – HCC is the most common kind of liver cancer. HCC can begin as a single tumor in the liver, or as small cancer nodules throughout the liver. This kind of cancer is most often seen in people who already suffer from cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver. Cirrhosis can be caused by heavy drinking, hepatitis, or a variety of other factors.
- Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer) – Bile duct cancer accounts for 10-20% of cancers that start in the liver. This cancer starts in the tubes that carry cancer to the gallbladder.
- Angiosarcoma & hemangiosarcoma – These tumors begin in cells lining the liver’s blood vessels and grow rapidly. This cancer is hard to treat as it generally becomes widespread quickly. People who have been exposed to vinyl chloride, thorium dioxide, arsenic, or radium may be more likely to develop these cancers, as well as anyone suffering from hereditary hemochromatosis.
- Hepatoblastoma – This extremely rare cancer typically develops in children under four years of age. According to the American Cancer Society, two out of three children can be successfully treated for this form of childhood liver cancer, hepatoblastoma.
The Stages of Liver Cancer
Like most cancers, there are four stages of primary liver cancer—I, II, III, IV—each with their own treatment plan. Generally speaking, the lower the number, the less the cancer has spread in a liver cancer patient.
The staging system most commonly used in the U.S. for liver cancer is the American Joint Committee on Cancer’s TNM system.5 This system is based on three key factors:
- Tumor size
- Nearby lymph node spread
- Metastasis to different sites
Liver tumor size includes how large the tumor has grown, whether there is more than one tumor, and if the cancer has reached nearby structures and caused liver damage.
Nearby lymph node spread simply means how far, if it all, the cancer has spread to lymph nodes. Liver metastasis to distant sites looks at whether the cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes or other major organs.
When determining which stage of cancer a patient has, doctors will consider each of these three factors in great detail. Once the doctor has gathered as much information as possible from a physical exam, biopsies, and imaging tests, they can let the patient know which stage they’re currently experiencing.
What Causes Liver Cancer?
Unlike certain cancers which are difficult to tie to a specific cause, there are key risk factors that doctors believe likely play a role in the development of some liver cancers.
As we noted earlier, the number of liver cancer cases per year has more than tripled since 1980. Experts believe that the following behaviors and conditions may contribute to an increased risk of liver cancer:
- Obesity & Excess body fat – A study published in the journal, Cancer Research, found that being overweight was associated with a 21 percent increased risk of liver cancer.6 The percentage of Americans who are considered obese has risen from 15% in 1982 to 36% today. Excess body fat—also referred to as non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)—can also lead to liver scarring and even liver failure. The Mayo Clinic writes that NASH is currently the second most common reason for liver transplants. The reason excess body fat can be so detrimental to the function of the liver is because fat tissue in the liver produces inflammation which can lead to the development of fibrosis (abnormal amount of scar tissue) and cirrhosis.
- Diabetes – People with type 2 diabetes are 2.6 times more likely to be diagnosed with liver cancer. Like the number of liver cancer cases in the U.S., the number of people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes has also risen over the past 30 years.
- Chronic alcohol consumption – Extreme alcohol use can lead to cirrhosis, which as we noted above, can lead to the development of the most common type of liver cancer, HCC. The damage your liver suffers from constant alcohol abuse cannot be undone, though it can be limited once you stop drinking.
- Smoking – Smoking, like drinking, can increase your risk of developing HCC. According to the National Institute of Health, “Smoking yields chemical substances with cytotoxic potential which increase necroinflammation and fibrosis.” This can have major adverse effects on the liver.7
- Chronic infection from hepatitis B or C – Hepatitis B is a virus that inflames the liver and weakens its ability to perform its all-important functions. This virus—which affects 292 million people annually worldwide—has no symptoms, but it does have a vaccine. Hepatitis C also inflames the liver and can be spread through the blood. Some people were exposed to Hepatitis C from blood transfusions pre-1980s before experts understood the virus, and it can also be spread through using shared drug needles. Those who have contracted Hepatitis C do not automatically develop liver cancer—they’re only at a higher risk if the virus eventually leads to cirrhosis. There is no vaccine for this virus.
- Genetics – There are hereditary liver diseases that can increase a person’s risk of developing liver cancer. These include hemochromatosis and Wilson’s disease.
While there are risk factors that can be tied to the development of liver cancer, it’s important to note that people can still be diagnosed with this disease even if they avoid all risks and have no underlying conditions.
Symptoms of Liver Cancer
If you are someone who partakes in any of the above risk factors or suffer from any of the conditions sometimes associated with liver cancer, keep an eye out for symptoms and seek out medical advice immediately if you have any questions.
Many symptoms may not appear until the cancer has advanced. Symptoms can include:
- Abdominal pain in your upper torso (where your liver is located)
- Swelling of the abdomen
- Increased fatigue
- Jaundiced skin
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- White, chalky stool
Again, even if you lead an extremely healthy and active lifestyle, there’s still a chance you could develop liver cancer, just as there’s a chance that you could develop another kind of cancer from the abnormal mutation of cells in your body.
The good news is there are actionable ways to decrease your risk of getting liver cancer. Some preventative measures include:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Get the Hepatitis B vaccine
- Get tested for Hepatitis C and seek treatment if you are positive
- Don’t smoke cigarettes
- Keep your alcohol consumption low
- Know your family’s medical history so you can be prepared if you’re at risk for inheriting a liver disease
Liver Cancer Treatment
Is liver cancer curable? That answer is complex. There are treatments and targeted therapy options available for individuals diagnosed with liver cancer.
On rare occasions, early stage cancer patients can have the cancer totally eradicated through surgical procedures like removing part of the liver or liver transplantation—not often does an individual have a healthy enough liver for either of these options, though.8
Depending on the type and stage of liver cancer a patient has, their doctor or team of doctors will help them come up with a treatment plan that best suits their needs and lifestyle. Some factors a doctor treating liver cancer will consider include:9
- Age and lifespan of the patient
- Any other serious health conditions the patient suffers from
- The stage of cancer
- The likelihood that the treatment will help or cure the cancer
- The patient’s feelings toward possible side effects from treatment
Immunity Therapy Center: Explore Alternative Liver Cancer Treatment
Liver cancer is a nefarious disease that attacks a vital organ for a number of reasons, some known and some yet to be discovered.
While the number of liver cancer cases has been on the rise in the U.S. over the past three decades, this doesn’t mean that all hope is lost.
There are ways to potentially prevent this disease, as well as treatment options for those who will be diagnosed with liver cancer.
If you or someone you love has received a liver cancer diagnosis, you may be feeling overwhelmed by your options—maybe surgery is not an option, chemotherapy is not something you wish to explore, and you are curious about other ways to treat your disease.
Founded by Dr. Carlos Bautista in 2007, Immunity Therapy Center (ITC) is an alternative cancer treatment center located in Mexico.
ITC offers liver cancer patients natural, alternative treatments to traditional, often depleting methods. These alternative treatments include vitamin and mineral supplementation, regenerative cell cancer therapy, oxygen treatments, localized hypothermia, and more.
Interested in learning more? Check out ITC today.
1) Cancer.org. Key Statistics About Liver Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/liver-cancer/about/what-is-key-statistics.html
2) American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2018. https://www.cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/research/cancer-facts-and-statistics/annual-cancer-facts-and-figures/2018/cancer-facts-and-figures-2018.pdf
3) John Hopkins Medicine.Liver: Anatomy and Functions https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/liver-anatomy-and-functions
4) CDC. What is the Liver? https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/liver/index.htm
5) Cancer.org. Liver Cancer Stages. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/liver-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/staging.html
6) Endocrine Web. Being Overweight Increases Risk of Liver Cancer. https://www.endocrineweb.com/news/obesity/55627-being-overweight-increases-risk-liver-cancer
7) NCBI. Heavy smoking and liver. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4088100/
8) American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2018. https://www.cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/research/cancer-facts-and-statistics/annual-cancer-facts-and-figures/2018/cancer-facts-and-figures-2018.pdf
9) Cancer.org. Treating Liver Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/liver-cancer/treating.html
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.