Your liver is an organ located in the top right part of your abdomen. It has essential roles in digestion and filtering toxins out of your bloodstream. Liver cancer forms in cells of this organ and can severely impact its function.
There are multiple types of liver cancer. The most common is hepatocellular carcinoma. Others, including intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma and hepatoblastoma, occur much less regularly.
Cancer in the liver can also occur when it originates in other places and spreads to the liver. In this case, it is called metastatic cancer.
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Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) presents in various ways. If it’s caught early, HCC is typically asymptomatic. However, common symptoms include:
Feeling full quickly when eating
Right upper quadrant abdominal pain
Leg edema (water retention causing swelling)
Swelling in the abdomen
Yellowed skin and eyes (jaundice)
Liver cancer is an uncontrollable growth of cells due to mutations in DNA, the instructional material for every cell's role in your body. When it changes or mutates, your cells act in ways they shouldn’t, such as growing out of control and forming a tumor.
The majority of HCC occurs in the context of chronic liver disease, with almost 90% of HCC patients in the West having cirrhosis before diagnosis.¹
Other causes include:
Several inherited disorders
Lifestyle factors, such as alcohol and tobacco
HCC does not necessarily have a “heritable risk.” However, several studies have shown family history to be a risk factor.²
Some inherited disorders are associated with the development of HCC, including:
Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency
Acute intermittent porphyria
Furthermore, family-based association analyses have demonstrated that some genes increase susceptibility to hepatitis B and C, major causes of HCC.³
Scientists haven’t yet pinned down the genes that directly cause HCC, so you can’t test for any specific genes. However, you can test for heritable diseases that may cause HCC, such as hereditary hemochromatosis or alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency.
As mentioned above, certain risk factors increase your chance of developing liver cancer. These include:
People with type 2 diabetes are more at risk.
People who have this disease can sometimes develop liver cancer.
This can cause extreme damage to your liver, leading to many complications, including liver cancer.
These toxins can form on crops such as corn, peanuts, and soybeans due to mold. Some foods can become contaminated if they have been poorly stored.
Cirrhosis is scarring and inflammation of the liver that can get increasingly more serious and heighten your chance of developing liver cancer.
Chronic infection with viral hepatitis (B or C) can increase your likelihood of developing liver cancer.
There is no way to 100% protect yourself against liver cancer. However, you can reduce your risk by:
Doctors recommend reducing your alcohol consumption to as little as possible. The recommended limit is one drink a day for women and two for men.
You can maintain a healthy weight by eating well and exercising regularly. If you need to lose weight, you should lose it slowly. It’s best to consult a health professional or dietician for advice if this is your aim.
This could involve getting vaccinated against hepatitis B, practicing safe sex, and washing your hands regularly. Avoid using intravenous drugs if possible.
If you do inject, make sure you are using a clean needle. If you are receiving a piercing or tattoo, choose a clean store, as dirty needles can spread hepatitis C.
Generally, whether your doctor recommends screening depends on your risk factors for liver cancer. You may want to consult a medical professional about screening if you have a hepatitis B or C infection or liver cirrhosis. Screening will likely involve a blood test and abdominal ultrasound as frequently as every six months.
Risk factors and genetic predisposition for liver disease can sometimes be passed down through families. You can screen for this if your medical professional deems it appropriate. They can give you an idea of how at-risk you are for developing it.
Finding ways to protect your liver is always beneficial, whether maintaining a healthy weight, minimizing alcohol consumption, or other steps. If you have concerning symptoms or worries, consult your medical professional.
Genetic testing examines your DNA for changes, patterns, or mutations that mean you have a particular trait or predisposition. It will often involve a biological sample so that lab technicians can extract and test your DNA. It is not usually an invasive process.
Results from genetic testing are not usually absolute. They can give you an idea of disease risk or the likelihood of a trait. If you test positive for a disease that causes a predisposition for liver cancer, it does not automatically mean you will develop it.
Depending on the disease and the inheritance pattern, it can simply mean you are slightly more at risk than someone not genetically predisposed. Your medical professional will be able to explain your results and what they may tell you about your health.