The liver is the largest solid organ in the body. It is located behind the ribs on the right side of the body, under the right lung. It is important for many metabolic functions.
No. The liver stores nutrients that help feed the body when a person has not eaten for a few hours. It also changes other nutrients into more basic elements before sending them to other parts of the body to be used. The liver helps break down sugars, starch, fats, and proteins.
The liver also makes albumin, a protein that helps the body balance fluids. The liver makes clotting factors. They help blood thicken or clot when a person is bleeding. Bile made in the liver is important for digesting food and for other bodily functions.
One of the liver’s most important functions is to collect and destroy poisons in the body. The liver breaks down and removes medicines. When the liver is not working well, chemicals can build up inside the body and cause damage.
Liver cancer is cancer that starts in the cells of the liver. It is not the same as cancers that start somewhere else in the body and then spread to the liver. Healthcare providers call those cancers liver metastases (or secondary liver cancers).
Liver cancer is rare in the United States and Europe. It is the most common form of cancer in some African and East Asian countries, though. There are several kinds of liver cancers:
In 2016, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be 39,230 new cases of primary liver cancer, and 2,000 to 3,000 people will develop bile duct cancer. Men are more likely to get liver cancer than women. Liver cancer is more common in some African and East Asian countries than in North America and Europe. In some areas of Africa and Asia, it is the most common type of cancer.
A person can have liver cancer for months or years before having symptoms of the disease. People do not usually show symptoms of liver cancer until the cancer grows large enough to push against other parts of the liver or against other organs in the stomach.
People with liver cancer may have any or all of these symptoms:
All these symptoms can be caused by many other medical problems. If you have any of these symptoms, you should see your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
If you think you might have liver cancer, you should have a medical exam. Many tests may be needed to confirm liver cancer. The steps to diagnosing liver cancer might include a medical history, physical exam, blood tests, imaging tests, and a liver biopsy (removing small pieces of tumor for lab tests). Imaging tests for liver cancer can include ultrasound, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and CT (computed tomography) scan. In some cases, the diagnosis of liver cancer can be made by MRI alone (without a liver biopsy). If the diagnosis is in doubt, however, a biopsy is performed.
Many people with cancer get an opinion from a second healthcare provider who is a liver specialist. There are many reasons to get a second opinion. Here are some of those reasons:
Many people have a hard time deciding on a liver cancer treatment. It may help to have a second healthcare provider review the diagnosis and treatment choices before starting treatment. It is important to remember that in most cases, a short delay in treatment will not lower the chance that it will work. Some health insurance companies even require that a person with cancer seek a second opinion. Most other insurance companies will pay for a second opinion if asked.
There are many ways to get a second opinion:
You may have one treatment or many treatments together:
Healthcare providers are always finding new ways to treat liver cancer. These new methods are tested in clinical trials. Before beginning treatment, you should ask your healthcare provider if there are any clinical trials you should consider.
Here’s an overview of some new prevention and treatment methods being studied:
Gene therapy (research only). This may improve a person’s chance of surviving liver cancer.
Clinical trials are studies of new cancer treatments. Healthcare providers do clinical trials to learn how well new treatments will work. They also do trials to test for side effects. A promising treatment is compared to the current treatment to see if it works better or has fewer side effects. People who participate in these studies may benefit from new treatments before the FDA approves them. Research studies also help further our understanding of cancer and help future cancer patients.