Liver cancer is an abnormal growth of tissue in the liver. Primary liver cancer occurs when the tumour grows from the cells of the liver. Secondary (metastatic) liver cancer occurs when the main cancer spreads from elsewhere in the body to the liver. Liver cancer is more common in Asia than in Western countries.
The liver is made up of many different types of cells. Primary liver cancer is named after the cells from which the cancer developed.
- The main cells in the liver are called hepatocytes. A cancer growing from these cells is called hepatocellular carcinoma or hepatoma.
- The cells that line the bile ducts (tubes) are called cholangiocytes. A tumour in these cells is called a cholangiocarcinoma or bile duct cancer.
What causes liver cancer?
The 3 common causes of primary liver cancer are:
- Chronic hepatitis B infection
- Chronic hepatitis C infection
- Liver disease caused by excessive alcohol consumption
Other causes include inherited liver conditions, cirrhosis (scarring of the liver), or a poison called aflatoxin found in mouldy peanuts, wheat, soya and grain.
How is liver cancer treated?
The treatment for liver cancer depends on the size of the tumour and how much it has spread. Treatment methods include:
- Chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells. This can be given as injections into the vein or may be injected directly into the liver cancer in a process called chemoembolization. A gel may be injected at the same time to block the blood flow to the cancer.
- Radiation therapy (high-energy X-ray) to kill the cancer cells or stop them from spreading.
- Liver resection, where the affected part of the liver is removed surgically. This can cure early stage liver cancer if the rest of the liver is healthy.
- Tumour ablation, where liver cancer cells are destroyed by directly introducing high heat or or concentrated ethanol to the tumour.
- Liver transplant, which involves the removal of the entire liver and replacement with a healthy donated liver. This can only be done when a donated liver is available, but a successful liver transplant tends to have a very good prognosis.
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