Liver Cancer: Let’s Talk Survivorship, Risk Factors, and Support

October 22, 2021
A husband and wife wearing winter coats smile and snuggle outside

Stock photo posed by models: Unsplash

Liver cancer is sometimes called the “silent disease.” It typically doesn’t cause signs or symptoms in its early stages. As a result, the disease is often diagnosed at a later stage. This was true for Helen. “I was devastated when I was first diagnosed with stage IV liver cancer,” she shared. “As a nurse, I knew the prognosis was not good.”

Then Helen learned about the treatment options available for liver cancer. “Luckily, I have a very diligent husband who uncovered all of these options, and I was quickly seen by a liver surgeon on a transplant team and by oncologists,” she noted. “Now I am more than a 2-year survivor with a hopeful future because I know I have treatment options."

Treatment options for liver cancer depend on the stage of the disease and the patient’s age and health. As with other types of cancer, treatment for liver cancer has the most favorable outcome when it’s treated early. Read on as we share key things to know about the disease in recognition of Liver Cancer Awareness Month.

It’s estimated that more than 42,000 new cases of liver cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2021.

 

Types of Liver Cancer

The liver is one of the largest organs in the human body. It’s located on the right side of the abdomen and is protected by the rib cage. The liver has 3 important functions:

  • It filters and removes waste and toxins from the blood.
  • It makes bile that breaks down fats in the digestive process.
  • It stores energy in the form of glycogen, a type of sugar.

Primary liver cancer originates in the liver and forms in the tissues. It is rarely diagnosed early and often does not respond to current treatments. This typically makes a liver cancer diagnosis a more severe prognosis.

Secondary liver cancer occurs when a cancer in another part of the body spreads to the liver. This mostly occurs with colon, lung, and breast cancers. In the United States, secondary liver cancer is the most common form of the disease.

Risk Factors for Liver Cancer

Through research, scientists are learning more about the causes of liver cancer. Common risk factors for developing the disease include the following:

  • Viral hepatitis: Viral hepatitis is one of the largest risk factors for this type of cancer. Hepatitis viruses are viruses that infect the liver. Two common types are chronic hepatitis B and chronic hepatitis C. Carriers of hepatitis B virus face up to a 100 times increased risk of developing adult primary liver cancer.
  • Cirrhosis: Cirrhosis is a disease in which liver cells become damaged and are replaced by scar tissue. People with cirrhosis have an increased risk of liver cancer. Most cases in the United States occur in people who abuse alcohol or have chronic hepatitis infections.
  • Age: In the United States, adult primary liver cancer occurs most often in people over age 60. 
  • Gender: Liver cancer is much more common in males than in females.
  • Race and ethnicity: In the United States, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have the highest rates of liver cancer, followed by American Indians/Alaska Natives and Hispanics/Latinos, African Americans, and whites.
  • Inherited metabolic disease: Certain inherited metabolic diseases can lead to cirrhosis.
  • Diabetes: Diabetes can increase the risk of liver cancer, usually in patients who have other risk factors such as heavy alcohol consumption or chronic viral hepatitis.
  • Obesity: Obesity may increase the risk of developing liver cancer, probably because it can result in fatty liver disease and cirrhosis.

Learn about liver cancer treatments and side effects

 

Signs & Symptoms of Liver Cancer

Signs and symptoms of liver cancer do not usually appear until the disease is in its later stages. Many patients who develop liver cancer have long-standing cirrhosis. If a cirrhosis patient's condition worsens without any known reason, doctors will probably suspect that liver cancer is the cause and do appropriate tests.

In people with liver cancer, warning signs can develop as the size of the liver increases and fails to perform its functions. The most common health problems include:

  • A hard lump or swelling found on the right side of the abdomen, just below the ribs
  • Pain or discomfort on the upper side of the abdomen or by the right side of the shoulder blade
  • Jaundice (the yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes) or dark-colored urine
  • Nausea, loss of appetite, or feeling full shortly after you begin to eat
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen abdomen and bleeding (the symptoms of cirrhosis)

 

Liver Cancer Resources & Support

If you are living with liver cancer or are a caregiver to someone with liver cancer, these resources can help ease the burden of your journey. 

Another place to turn for support is MyLifeLine.org, CSC’s free digital support community for people impacted by cancer. MyLifeLine members have access to 14 different discussion boards where they can share their ideas and experiences. Members can also create a private support website to keep their friends and family updated about their cancer journey. In addition, they can organize help for things like meals and rides to medical appointments. 

“Stay positive! Even on the bad days, not being down on myself or thinking negatively helps guide me through.”

— Cancer survivor & MyLifeLine member

Be sure to check our blog section often as we share more news, stories, and inspiration to help support people impacted by cancer.