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Primary Liver Cancer

What are the types of liver cancer?

Liver cancer may originate in the liver (primary liver cancer also called hepatocellular carcinoma), the bile ducts (bile duct cancer also called cholangiocarcinoma) or spread to the liver from other sites (liver metastases also called secondaries)

What is primary liver cancer?

Liver cancer happens when normal cells in the liver change into abnormal cells and grow out of control. Most people who get liver cancer have long-term liver disease, which causes scarring of the liver called cirrhosis.  

What are the symptoms of liver cancer?

Liver cancer does not usually cause any symptoms of its own. A few patients might have a lump or mild pain in the upper belly, feel full early on when they try to eat, or lose weight.

Others might have symptoms that are caused by the liver disease they had before they got cancer. Those symptoms can get worse or come back because of the cancer. They include:

  • Swelling of the belly or legs
  • The skin or white part of the eyes turning yellow

Most people who are diagnosed with primary liver cancer, in Australia, are part of a screening programme, due to their liver cirrhosis.

Having any or some of these symptoms does not mean you have liver cancer several other minor conditions can cause these symptoms. However, you should talk to your doctor about these issues if you have any.

What are the tests for liver cancer? 

If your doctor suspects you have liver cancer, he or she will do one or more of the following tests:

  • Blood tests
  • An MRI scan, CT scan, ultrasound, or other imaging test – Imaging tests create pictures of the inside of the body and can show abnormal growths.

What is liver cancer staging? 

Cancer staging is a way in which doctors find out if a cancer has spread past the layer of tissue where it began and, if so, how far.

How is liver cancer treated?  

Liver cancer can be treated in different ways. Treatment depends on the stage of your cancer. It also depends on how healthy your liver is (in other words, how serious your liver disease was before you got cancer). The different treatments include:

  • Surgery - Liver cancer can sometimes be treated with surgery to remove the part of the liver with the cancer.
  • Liver transplant - A liver transplant is a type of surgery in which a doctor replaces a diseased liver with a healthy liver from another person.
  • Ablation therapy - Ablation therapy is a procedure that can kill cancer cells in the liver. It does not involve surgery. Doctors can do ablation therapy in different ways. They can kill the cancer cells using heat, a laser, radiation therapy, or by injecting a special alcohol or acid directly into the cancer.
  • Chemotherapy - Chemotherapy is the medical term for medicines that kill cancer cells or stop them from growing.
  • Blocking the cancer's blood supply - Doctors can do a procedure called "embolization" to block off the blood vessel that sends blood to the cancer. This keeps the cancer from growing by "starving" it of its blood supply. Sometimes, the embolization procedure is combined with chemotherapy ("chemoembolization") or radiation ("radioembolization").

What happens after treatment?

After treatment, you will be checked every so often to see if the cancer comes back. Regular follow up tests usually include exams, blood tests, and imaging tests.

You should also watch for the symptoms listed above. Having those symptoms could mean the cancer has come back. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any symptoms.