Liver Cancer

Every year, over 16,000 new cases of primary liver cancer are diagnosed in the United States. Out of this number approximately 14,000 cases will prove fatal. Worldwide, the numbers are even higher: areas of Africa and Asia have incidence rates ten times as high as those in America. Worldwide, rates appear to be increasing.

Hepatocellular Carcinoma

Hepatocellular carcinoma accounts for over eighty percent of primary liver cancers. It affects men twice as often as women and usually presents after age fifty. Hepatocellular carcinoma begins in the hepatocytes, specialized liver cells that perform a number of metabolic, endocrine and excretory functions.

Exact causes for hepatocellular carcinoma are unknown, but chronic hepatitis infections and cirrhosis are known factors. Cirrhosis has been linked to eighty percent of all hepatocellular carcinoma cases.

Metastatic Liver Cancer

Primary liver cancers occur if the cells originate in the liver. This is a relatively rare occurrence. More often, cancerous cells from other body parts invade the organ through metastasis, resulting in metastatic liver cancer.

Gastrointestinal tumors, breast cancer, lung cancer and melanoma are some of the possible sources of metastatic liver cancer. The organ of origin determines the name of the metastases: if the metastases resulted from cancerous cells of the breast, for instance, it is labeled secondary breast cancer, despite the new location.

Liver Cancer Prognosis

For many people, medical treatment for liver cancer is aimed at extending life, controlling symptoms and possibly shrinking the tumor enough to risk surgery. The majority of cases, however, are incurable.

The prognosis depends on how early the tumor is detected. If the tumor is small, surgical removal may be an option. Risks associated with surgery include infection and blood loss resulting in anemia. Only ten to twenty percent of all hepatocellular carcinoma surgeries succeed in removing cancerous tissue entirely. If the surgery is not successful, the disease is often fatal within three to six months. Liver metastases are equally difficult to treat.

The best defense against hepatocellular carcinoma is prevention. Early detection and treatment of chronic hepatitis, for instance, reduces the chances of cirrhosis, which in turn lowers the risk of cancer. Antiviral medications used to control hepatitis also appear to reduce the incidence of hepatic tumors. Ongoing clinical trials also offer new treatment options and ways to reduce symptoms.