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Liver cancer

AGE  More common with increasing ageGENDER  Up to four times more common in males
LIFESTYLE  Excess alcohol consumption and intravenous drug abuse are risk factorsGENETICS  Not a significant factor

Liver cancer is a cancerous tumour that originates in the cells of the liver.

Liver cancer
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Worldwide, liver cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer, accounting for about half of all cancer cases. However, in developed countries, the disease is less common, and most cases occur following long-standing cirrhosis due to long-term alcohol abuse.

In developing countries, liver cancer is closely linked with viral hepatitis, especially that due to the hepatitis B and C viruses (see Chronic hepatitis), which account for about 7 in 10 cases of liver cancer. People with haemochromatosis, a condition in which iron builds up in the liver, are also at high risk of developing liver cancer.

Another cause of liver cancer is contamination of food by carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) such as aflatoxin, a toxin produced by a fungus that grows on stored grain and peanuts. Occasionally, liver cancer results from infection with a form of liver fluke (a parasitic worm) that is common in the Far East or exposure to certain chemicals in the workplace.

What are the symptoms of liver cancer?

People with liver cancer may experience the following symptoms:

  • Weight loss and fever.
  • Pain in the upper right side of the abdomen.
  • Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (see Jaundice).

As the disease progresses, the abdomen may become swollen because of an accumulation of fluid (ascites).

What might be done?

Your doctor may suspect liver cancer from your symptoms if you already have cirrhosis. You may have blood tests to look for signs of cancer and to assess liver function. Imaging tests, such as ultrasound scanning or MRI, may be performed to confirm the diagnosis. You may also have a liver biopsy, in which a piece of tissue is removed and tested for cancer cells.

Surgery offers the only chance of a cure. A liver transplant may be considered but is rarely done because in many cases the cancer is likely to recur. More commonly, the aim is to slow the progress of the disease with treatments that include chemotherapy and blocking the blood supply to the tumour, causing it to shrink.

What is the prognosis?

The outlook for people who have liver cancer is poor. Many people do not respond to treatment and survive less than a year after diagnosis.

Posted 04.05.2011

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