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liver-cancer

Liver Cancer

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What is liver cancer?

Liver cancer is a cancer that starts in the liver. To understand liver cancer, it helps to know about the normal structure and function of the liver.
 
About the liver
The liver is the largest internal organ. It lies under your right ribs just beneath your right lung. It is shaped like a pyramid and divided into right and left lobes. The lobes are further divided into segments. 

 

                                        

 

Unlike most other organs, the liver gets blood from 2 sources: the hepatic artery supplies the liver with blood rich in oxygen from the heart, and the portal vein brings nutrient-rich blood from the intestines.
You cannot live without your liver. It has several important functions:
It breaks down and stores many of the nutrients absorbed from the intestine that your body needs to function. Some nutrients must be changed (metabolized) in the liver before they can be used by the rest of the body for energy or to build and repair body tissues.
It makes most of the clotting factors that keep the body from bleeding too much when you are cut or injured.
It secretes bile into the intestines to help absorb nutrients (especially fats).
It filters out and breaks down toxic wastes in the blood, which are then removed from the body.
The liver is made up mainly of cells called hepatocytes. It also contains other types of cells, including cells that line its blood vessels and cells that line small tubes in the liver called bile ducts. The bile ducts extend out of the liver and carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder or directly to the intestines.
These different types of cells in the liver can form several types of malignant (cancerous) and benign (non-cancerous) tumors. These tumors have different causes, are treated differently, and have a different prognosis (outlook).

Benign liver tumors: Benign tumors sometimes grow large enough to cause problems, but they do not grow into nearby tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. If they need to be treated, the patient can usually be cured with surgery.

Hemangioma: The most common type of benign liver tumor, hemangiomas start in blood vessels. Most hemangiomas of the liver cause no symptoms and do not need treatment. But some may bleed and need to be removed surgically.

Hepatic adenoma: Hepatic adenoma is a benign tumor that starts from hepatocytes (the main type of liver cell). Most cause no symptoms and do not need treatment. But some eventually cause symptoms, such as pain or a mass in the abdomen (stomach area) or blood loss. Because there is a risk that the tumor could rupture (leading to severe blood loss) and a small risk that it could eventually develop into liver cancer, most experts usually advise surgery to remove the tumor if possible.

The use of certain drugs may increase the risk of getting these tumors. Women have a higher chance of having one of these tumors if they take birth control pills, although this is rare. Men who use anabolic steroids may also develop these. Adenomas may shrink when the drugs are stopped.

Focal nodular hyperplasia: Focal nodular hyperplasia (FNH) is a tumor-like growth made up of several cell types (hepatocytes, bile duct cells, and connective tissue cells). Although FNH tumors are benign, it can be hard to tell them apart from true liver cancers, and doctors sometimes remove them when the diagnosis is unclear. If you have symptoms from an FNH tumor, it can be removed with surgery.

Both hepatic adenomas and FNH tumors are more common in women than in men.

Cancers that start in the liver

Several types of cancer can start in the liver.

Hepatocellular carcinoma (hepatocellular cancer): This is the most common form of liver cancer in adults. It is also sometimes called hepatoma. About 4 of 5 cancers that start in the liver are this type.

Hepatocellular cancer (HCC) can have different growth patterns:
Some begin as a single tumor that grows larger. Only late in the disease does it spread to other parts of the liver.
A second type seems to start as many small cancer nodules throughout the liver, not just a single tumor. This is seen most often in people with cirrhosis (chronic liver damage) and is the most common pattern seen in the United States.
Under a microscope, doctors can distinguish several subtypes of HCC. Most often these subtypes do not affect treatment or prognosis (outlook). But one of these subtypes, fibrolamellar, is important to recognize. This type is rare, making up less than 1% of HCCs. Patients with this type are usually younger than age 35, and the rest of their liver is not diseased. This subtype generally has a better outlook than other forms of HCC.

Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer): About 10% to 20% of cancers that start in the liver are intrahepatic cholangiocarcinomas. These cancers start in the cells that line the small bile ducts (tubes that carry bile to the gallbladder) within the liver. (Most cholangiocarcinomas actually start in the bile ducts outside the liver.)

Although the rest of this document deals mainly with hepatocellular cancers, cholangiocarcinomas are often treated the same way.

Angiosarcoma and hemangiosarcoma: These are rare cancers that begin in cells lining the blood vessels of the liver. People who have been exposed to vinyl chloride or to thorium dioxide (Thorotrast) are more likely to develop these cancers. Some other cases are thought to be due to exposure to arsenic or radium, or to an inherited condition known as hemochromatosis. In about half of all cases, no likely cause can be identified.

These tumors grow quickly and are usually too widespread to be removed surgically by the time they are found. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may help slow the disease, but these cancers are usually very hard to treat.

Hepatoblastoma: This is a very rare kind of cancer that develops in children, usually in those younger than 4 years old. The cells of hepatoblastoma are similar to fetal liver cells. About 2 out of 3 children with these tumors are treated successfully with surgery and chemotherapy, although the tumors are harder to treat if they have spread outside of the liver.

Secondary liver cancer: Most of the time when cancer is found in the liver it did not start there but has spread (metastasized) from somewhere else in the body, such as the pancreas, colon, stomach, breast, or lung. These tumors are named and treated based on their primary site (where they started). For example, cancer that started in the lung and spread to the liver is called lung cancer with spread to the liver, not liver cancer, and it is treated as lung cancer.

What are the risk factors for liver cancer?

A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease, such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be changed. Others, like a person's age or family history, can't be changed.
But risk factors don't tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several risk factors, does not mean that you will get the disease. And some people who get the disease may have few or no known risk factors.
Scientists have found several risk factors that make a person more likely to develop hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).

Gender: Hepatocellular carcinoma is much more common in males than in females. Much of this is probably because of behaviors affecting some of the risk factors described below. The fibrolamellar subtype of HCC occurs in about equal numbers in both sexes.

Chronic viral hepatitis: Worldwide, the most common risk factor for liver cancer is chronic (long-term) infection with hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV). These infections lead to cirrhosis of the liver (see below) and are responsible for making liver cancer the most common cancer in many parts of the world.

In the United States, infection with hepatitis C is the more common cause of HCC, while in Asia and developing countries, hepatitis B is more common. People infected with both viruses have a very high risk of developing chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.
HBV and HCV can spread from person to person through sharing contaminated needles (such as in drug use), unprotected sex, or childbirth. They can also be passed on through blood transfusions, although this is very rare in the United States since the start of blood product testing for these viruses. In developing countries, children sometimes contract hepatitis B infection from prolonged contact with family members who are infected.
Of the 2 viruses, infection with HBV is more likely to cause symptoms, such as a flu-like illness and a yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice). But most people recover completely from HBV infection within a few months. Only a very small percentage of adults become chronic carriers (and have a higher risk for liver cancer). The risk of becoming a chronic carrier is higher in infants and small children who become infected.
HCV, on the other hand, is less likely to cause symptoms. But most people with HCV develop chronic infections, which are more likely to lead to liver damage or even cancer.
Other viruses, such as the hepatitis A virus and hepatitis E virus, can also cause hepatitis. But people infected with these viruses do not develop chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis, and are not at an increased risk of liver cancer.

 

Heavy alcohol use: Alcohol abuse is a leading cause of cirrhosis in the United States, which in turn is linked with an increased risk of 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 (but not all) people who develop liver cancer already have some evidence of cirrhosis.

There are several possible causes of cirrhosis. Most cases in the United States occur in people who abuse alcohol or have chronic HBV or HCV infections.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a condition in which people who consume little or no alcohol develop a fatty liver, is common in obese people. People with a type of this disease known as non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) might go on to develop cirrhosis.

Certain types of inherited metabolic diseases (see below) can cause problems in the liver that lead to cirrhosis. Some types of autoimmune diseases that affect the liver can also cause cirrhosis.

Obesity: Being obese (very overweight) increases the risk of developing liver cancer. This is probably because it can result in fatty liver disease and cirrhosis.

Type 2 diabetes; Type 2 diabetes has been linked with an increased risk of liver cancer, usually in patients who also have other risk factors such as heavy alcohol use and/or chronic viral hepatitis. This risk may be increased because people with type 2 diabetes tend to be overweight or obese, which in turn can cause liver problems.

 

Inherited metabolic diseases
Certain inherited metabolic diseases can lead to cirrhosis.
People with hemochromatosis absorb too much iron from their food. The iron settles in tissues throughout the body, including the liver. If enough iron builds up in the liver, it can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Other rare diseases that increase the risk of liver cancer include: Tyrosinemia, Alpha1-antitrypsin deficiency, Porphyria cutanea tarda, Glycogen storage diseases, Wilson disease

Aflatoxins: These cancer-causing substances are made by a fungus that contaminates peanuts, wheat, soybeans, ground nuts, corn, and rice. Storage in a moist, warm environment can lead to the growth of this fungus. Although this can occur almost anywhere in the world, it is more common in warmer and tropical countries. Developed countries such as the United States and those in Europe regulate the content of aflatoxins in foods through testing.

Long-term exposure to these substances is a major risk factor for liver cancer. The risk is increased even more in people with hepatitis B or C infections.

Vinyl chloride and thorium dioxide (Thorotrast): Exposure to these chemicals raises the risk of angiosarcoma of the liver. It also increases the risk of developing cholangiocarcinoma and hepatocellular cancer, but to a far lesser degree. Vinyl chloride is a chemical used in making some kinds of plastics. Thorotrast is a chemical that in the past was injected into some patients as part of certain x-ray tests. When the cancer-causing properties of these chemicals were recognized, steps were taken to eliminate them or minimize exposure to them. Thorotrast is no longer used, and exposure of workers to vinyl chloride is strictly regulated.

Anabolic steroids: Anabolic steroids are male hormones used by some athletes to increase their strength and muscle mass. Long-term anabolic steroid use can slightly increase the risk of hepatocellular cancer. Cortisone-like steroids, such as hydrocortisone, prednisone, and dexamethasone, do not carry this same risk.

Arsenic: Drinking water contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic, such as that from some wells, over a long period of time increases the risk of some types of liver cancer. This is more common in parts of East Asia, but it might also be a concern in some areas of the United States.

Factors with uncertain, controversial, or unproven effects on liver cancer risk

Birth control pills: In rare cases, birth control pills, also known as oral contraceptives, can cause benign tumors called hepatic adenomas. But it is not known if they increase the risk of hepatocellular cancer. Some of the studies that have looked at this issue have suggested there may be a link, but most of the studies were not of high quality and looked at types of pills that are no longer used. Current birth control pills use different types of estrogens, different estrogen doses, and different combinations of estrogens with other hormones. It is not known if the newer pills increase liver cancer risk.

Tobacco use: Some studies have found a link between smoking and liver cancer, but this has been hard to study because people who smoke are also more likely to drink alcohol. The link between smoking and liver cancer seems to be strongest among people with viral hepatitis or who drink a lot of alcohol.

 

Do we know what causes liver cancer?
Although several risk factors for hepatocellular cancer are known, exactly how these factors cause normal liver cells to become cancerous is only partially understood.
Cancers develop when the DNA of cells is damaged. DNA is the chemical in each of our cells that makes up ourgenes – the instructions for how our cells function. We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. But DNA affects more than how we look.
Some genes have instructions for controlling when cells grow, divide into new cells, and die. Genes that help cells grow and divide are called oncogenes. Genes that slow down cell division or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes. Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes. Several different genes usually need to have changes for a cell to become cancerous.
Certain chemicals that cause liver cancer, such as aflatoxins, are known to damage the DNA in liver cells. For example, studies have shown that aflatoxins can damage the TP53 tumor suppressor gene, which normally works to prevent cells from growing too much. Damage to the TP53 gene can lead to increased growth of abnormal cells and formation of cancers.
Infection of liver cells with hepatitis viruses can also damage DNA. These viruses have their own DNA, which carries instructions on how to infect cells and produce more viruses. In some patients, this viral DNA can insert itself into a liver cell's DNA, where it may affect the cell's genes. But scientists still don't know exactly how this might lead to cancer.
Although scientists are starting to understand how liver cancer develops, much more must be learned. Liver cancer clearly has many different causes, and there are undoubtedly many different genes involved in its development. It is hoped that a more complete understanding of how liver cancers develop will help doctors find ways to better prevent and treat them.

Can liver cancer be prevented?

Many liver cancers could be prevented by reducing exposures to known risk factors for this disease.

Avoiding and treating hepatitis infections: Worldwide, the most significant risk factor for liver cancer is chronic infection with hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV). These viruses can spread from person to person through sharing contaminated needles (such as in drug use) and through unprotected sex, so some of these cancers may be prevented by not sharing needles and by using safer sex practices (such as consistent use of condoms).

A vaccine to help prevent hepatitis B infection has been available since the early 1980s. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all children, as well as adults at risk (health care workers, those whose behaviors may put them at risk, etc.) get this vaccine to reduce the risk of hepatitis and liver cancer.
There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. Preventing HCV infection, as well as HBV infection in people who have not been immunized, is based on understanding how these infections occur. These viruses can be spread through sharing contaminated needles (such as in drug use), unprotected sex, and through childbirth.
Blood transfusions were once a major source of infection as well. But because blood banks in the United States test donated blood to look for these viruses, the risk of getting a hepatitis infection from a blood transfusion is extremely low.
People at high risk for hepatitis B or C should be tested for these infections so they can be watched for liver disease and treated if needed. Several drugs can be used to treat hepatitis B and C.
Treatment of chronic hepatitis C infection with 2 drugs (peg-interferon and ribavirin) for about 6 months to a year can eliminate HCV in many people. One of the problems with this treatment is that it can cause severe side effects, including flu-like symptoms, fatigue, depression, and low blood cell counts, which can make it hard to take.
A number of drugs can be used to treat chronic hepatitis B. These drugs have been shown to reduce the number of viruses in the blood and lessen liver damage. Although they do not cure the disease, they lower the risk of cirrhosis and might lower the risk of liver cancer, as well.

Limiting alcohol and tobacco use: In the United States, alcohol abuse is a major cause of cirrhosis, which can lead to liver cancer. Preventing liver cancers linked with alcohol abuse remains a challenge.

Quitting smoking might also slightly lower the risk of liver cancer, as well as many other life-threatening diseases.

Getting to and staying at a healthy weight: Avoiding obesity might be another way to help protect against liver cancer. People who are obese are more likely to have fatty liver disease and diabetes, both of which have been linked to liver cancer.

Limiting exposure to cancer-causing chemicals: Changing the way certain grains are stored in tropical and subtropical countries could reduce exposure to cancer-causing substances such as aflatoxins. Many developed countries already have regulations to prevent and monitor grain contamination.

Most developed countries also have regulations to protect consumers and workers from certain chemicals known to cause liver cancer. For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits the allowable level of arsenic in drinking water in the United States. But this may continue to be a problem in areas of the world where naturally occurring arsenic commonly gets into drinking water.

Treating diseases that increase liver cancer risk: Certain inherited diseases can cause cirrhosis of the liver, increasing the risk for liver cancer. Finding and treating these diseases early in life could lower this risk. For example, all children in families with hemochromatosis should be screened for the disease and treated if they have it. Treatment regularly removes small amounts of blood to lower the amount of excess iron in the body.

Can liver cancer be found early?

It is often hard to find liver cancer early because signs and symptoms often do not appear until it is in its later stages. Small liver tumors are hard to detect on a physical exam because most of the liver is covered by the right rib cage. By the time a tumor can be felt, it might already be quite large.

There are no widely recommended screening tests for liver cancer in people who are not at increased risk. (Screening is testing for cancer in people without any symptoms.) But testing may be recommended for some people at higher risk.

Many patients who develop liver cancer have long-standing cirrhosis (scar tissue formation from liver cell damage). Doctors may do tests to look for liver cancer if a patient with cirrhosis gets worse for no apparent reason.

For people at higher risk of liver cancer due to cirrhosis (from any cause) or other conditions, most doctors recommend liver cancer screening every 6 to 12 months with alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) blood tests and ultrasound exams. But it's not yet clear if screening results in more effective treatment of liver cancer.

Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) blood test: AFP is a protein that is normally present at high levels in the blood of fetuses but goes away shortly after birth. When it is found in the blood of adults, it suggests they may have liver cancer or a germ cell tumor of the testicle (in men) or ovary (in women).

AFP blood tests may be used to look for early tumors in people at high risk for liver cancer. But these tests usually are not used to screen people at average risk for liver cancer because they are not always accurate:                                                                                                Some liver tumors do not make a lot of this protein, Often by the time the AFP level is elevated, the tumor is too large to be removed or it has already spread outside the liver, Some non-cancerous liver diseases can also raise AFP levels.

In areas of the world where liver cancer is very common, using the AFP blood test for screening has detected many tumors at an earlier stage. Still, many experts feel that it isn't an accurate enough test by itself for people living in the United States and Europe. They recommend ultrasound as the main test, often along with the AFP test.

Ultrasound: Ultrasound is a test that uses sound waves and their echoes to produce a picture of internal organs or masses. A small instrument called a transducer gives off sound waves and picks up the echoes as they bounce off the organs. The echoes are converted by a computer into a black-and-white image. This test can show masses (tumors) growing in the liver, which can then be tested for cancer, if needed.

This is a very easy test to have, and it uses no radiation. For most ultrasound exams, you simply lie on a table while the transducer (which is shaped like a wand) is moved around on the skin over the part of your body being looked at. Usually, the skin is first lubricated with gel.

This test is used in people with certain liver cancer risk factors to help find cancers earlier. Many experts recommend that the test be done every 6 to 12 months. But no one knows for certain how often is really best.

Who should be screened?

Screening for liver cancer is not recommended for people who are not at increased risk. At this time there are no screening tests thought to be accurate enough for screening in the general population.

People at higher risk for liver cancer may be helped by screening. Many doctors recommend testing for people with cirrhosis (from any cause), especially if the cirrhosis is so severe that the patient is on the waiting list to receive a liver transplant. Without screening, a cancer may develop while the person is waiting for a transplant. Finding cancer early usually makes it more likely that the patient will survive longer. Early cancer will also move the person up on the transplant waiting list.

Most doctors also recommend that certain people with chronic HBV infections be screened, especially those with a family history of liver cancer, African Americans, and Asian Americans.

In other groups at increased risk, the benefits of screening may not be as clear. If you think you are at increased risk for liver cancer, talk to your doctor about whether screening is a good option for you.

How is liver cancer diagnosed?

Many liver cancers are not found until they start to cause symptoms, at which point they may already be at an advanced stage.

Signs and symptoms of liver cancer: Signs and symptoms of liver cancer often do not show up until the later stages of the disease, but sometimes they may show up sooner. If you go to your doctor when you first notice symptoms, your cancer might be diagnosed earlier, when treatment is most likely to be helpful. Some of the most common symptoms of liver cancer are:                                                                                                                                 Weight loss (without trying), Loss of appetite, Feeling very full after a small meal, Nausea or vomiting, Fever, An enlarged liver, felt as a mass under the ribs on the right side, An enlarged spleen, felt as a mass under the ribs on the left side, Pain in the abdomen or near the right shoulder blade, Swelling or fluid build-up in the abdomen, Itching, Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), Enlarged veins on the belly that become visible through the skin, Worsening of your condition if you have chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis

Many of the signs and symptoms of liver cancer can also be caused by other conditions, including other liver problems. Still, if you have any of these symptoms, it's important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

Some liver tumors make hormones that act on organs other than the liver. These hormones may cause:

High blood calcium levels (hypercalcemia), which can cause nausea, confusion, constipation, weakness, or muscle problems

Low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia), which can cause fatigue or fainting

Breast enlargement (gynecomastia) and/or shrinking of the testicles in men

High counts of red blood cells (erythrocytosis) which can cause someone to look red and flushed

High cholesterol levels

These unusual findings may cause doctors to suspect diseases of the nervous system or other disorders, rather than liver cancer.

If you have one or more of these symptoms, your doctor will try to find if they are caused by liver cancer or something else.

Medical history and physical exam: Your doctor will ask about your medical history to check for risk factors and learn more about your symptoms. Your doctor will also examine you to look for signs of liver cancer and other health problems. He or she will probably pay special attention to your abdomen and may check the skin and the whites of your eyes for jaundice (a yellowish color).

If symptoms and/or the results of the physical exam suggest you might have liver cancer, more involved tests will likely be done. These might include imaging tests, lab tests, and other procedures.

Imaging tests: Imaging tests use x-rays, magnetic fields, or sound waves to create pictures of the inside of your body. Imaging tests may be done for a number of reasons, including:

To help find suspicious areas that might be cancerous

To help diagnose liver cancer

To help a doctor guide a biopsy needle into a suspicious area to take a sample

To learn how far cancer may have spread

To help guide certain treatments in the liver

To help determine if treatment has been effective

To look for a possible recurrence of the cancer

People who have (or may have) liver cancer may get one or more of the following tests.

Ultrasound: This test uses sound waves to look for masses in the liver.

Computed tomography (CT): The CT scan is an x-ray test that produces detailed cross-sectional images of your body. A CT scan of the abdomen is very useful in identifying many types of liver tumors. It can provide precise information about the size, shape, and position of any tumors in the liver or elsewhere in the abdomen, as well as nearby blood vessels. CT scans can also be used to guide a biopsy needle precisely into a suspected tumor (called a CT-guided needle biopsy). If you are found to have liver cancer, a CT of the chest may also be done to look for possible spread to the lungs.

Instead of taking one picture like a standard x-ray, a CT scanner takes many pictures as it rotates around you. A computer then combines these into detailed images of slices of the part of your body that is being studied.

For this test, you may be asked to drink 1 to 2 pints of a liquid called oral contrast. This helps outline the intestine so that certain areas are not mistaken for tumors. You may also receive an IV (intravenous) line through which a different kind of contrast (IV contrast) is injected. This helps better outline structures in your body. The injection can cause some flushing (redness and warm feeling). Some people are allergic and get hives or, rarely, more serious reactions like trouble breathing and low blood pressure. Be sure to tell the doctor if you have any allergies or ever had a reaction to any contrast material used for x-rays.

If your doctor suspects you may have liver cancer, you may have one set of CT scans of your abdomen taken before you get IV contrast. Other sets of scans may then be taken over the next several minutes as the contrast passes through the liver and other parts of the body. These sets of scans (together known as a 4-phase or multiphase CT scan) can help spot different types of liver tumors.

CT scans take longer than regular x-rays. You need to lie still on a table while they are being done. During the test, the table slides in and out of the scanner, a ring-shaped machine that completely surrounds the table. You might feel a bit confined by the ring you have to lie in while the pictures are being taken. Spiral CT (also known as helical CT), which uses a faster machine and yields more detailed pictures, is now used in many medical centers.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Like CT scans, MRI scans provide detailed images of soft tissues in the body. But MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays. The energy from the radio waves is absorbed and then released in a pattern formed by the type of body tissue and by certain diseases. A computer translates the pattern into a very detailed image of parts of the body.

When MRI is used to look at liver tumors, several sets of images may be taken. After the first set is done, a contrast material called gadolinium is injected into a vein to help see details more clearly. Then other sets are taken over the next several minutes as the contrast moves through the liver and other parts of the body. This is known as dynamic contrast-enhanced MRI.

MRI scans can be very helpful in looking at liver tumors. Sometimes they can tell a benign tumor from a malignant one. They can also be used to look at blood vessels in and around the liver, and can help show if liver cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

MRI scans may be a little more uncomfortable than CT scans, and they often take longer. You may be placed inside a narrow tube, which is confining and can upset people with a fear of enclosed spaces. Newer, more open MRI machines can sometimes be used instead. The MRI machine also makes buzzing and clicking noises that you may find disturbing. Some places will provide earplugs to help block these noises out.

Angiography: An angiogram is an x-ray test for looking at blood vessels. Contrast medium, or dye, is injected into an artery to outline blood vessels while x-ray images are taken. Angiography can be used to show the arteries that supply blood to a liver cancer, which can help doctors decide if a cancer can be removed and to help plan the operation. It can also be used to help guide some types of non-surgical treatment, such as embolization.

Angiography can be uncomfortable because the doctor doing the test has to put a small catheter (a flexible hollow tube) into the artery leading to the liver to inject the dye. Usually the catheter is put into an artery in your inner thigh and threaded up into the liver artery. A local anesthetic is often used to numb the area before inserting the catheter. Then the dye is injected quickly to outline all the vessels while the x-rays are being taken.

Angiography may also be done with a CT scanner (CT angiography) or an MRI scanner (MR angiography). These techniques are often used instead of x-ray angiography because they can give information about the blood vessels in the liver without the need for a catheter in the artery. You may still need an IV line so that a contrast dye can be injected into the bloodstream during the imaging.

Bone scan: A bone scan can help look for cancer that has spread to bones. Doctors don't usually order this test for people with liver cancer unless you have symptoms such as bone pain, or if there's a chance you may be eligible for a liver transplant to treat your cancer.

For this test, a small amount of low-level radioactive material is injected into a vein (IV). The substance settles in areas of damaged bone throughout the entire skeleton over the course of a couple of hours. You then lie on a table for about 30 minutes while a special camera detects the radioactivity and creates a picture of the skeleton.

Areas of active bone changes appear as "hot spots" on the skeleton – that is, they attract the radioactivity. These areas may suggest the presence of cancer, but other bone diseases can also cause the same pattern. To distinguish between these conditions, other imaging tests such as plain x-rays or MRI scans, or even a bone biopsy might be needed.

Other procedures: Other types of tests may be done if your doctor thinks you might have liver cancer but the imaging test results aren’t conclusive.

Laparoscopy: In this procedure, a doctor inserts a thin, lighted tube with a small video camera on the end through a small incision (cut) in the front of the abdomen to look at the liver and other internal organs. (Sometimes more than one cut is made.) This procedure is done in the operating room. Usually you are under general anesthesia (in a deep sleep), although in some cases you may be sedated (made sleepy) and the area of the incision will be numbed.

Laparoscopy can help plan surgery or other treatments, and can help doctors confirm the stage (extent) of the cancer. If needed, doctors can also insert instruments through the incisions to remove biopsy samples, which are then looked at under a microscope to make or confirm the diagnosis of cancer.

Laparoscopy is usually done at an outpatient surgery center. Because the surgeon only makes a small incision to insert the tubes, you should not have much pain after surgery. You should be able to go home after you recover from the anesthesia.

Biopsy: A biopsy is the removal of a sample of tissue to see if it is cancer. Sometimes, the only way to be certain that liver cancer is present is to take a biopsy and look at it under a microscope.

But in some cases, doctors can be fairly certain that a person has liver cancer based on the results of imaging tests such as CT and MRI scans. In these cases, a biopsy may not be needed. Doctors are often concerned that sticking a needle into the tumor or otherwise disturbing it without completely removing it might help cancer cells spread to other areas. This is a major concern if a liver transplant might be an option to try to cure the cancer, as any spread of the cancer might make the person ineligible for a transplant.

If a biopsy is needed, several methods can be used to take samples of liver tissue.

Needle biopsy: For a needle biopsy, a hollow needle is placed through the skin in the abdomen and into the liver. The skin is first numbed with local anesthesia before the needle is placed. Different sized needles may be used.

For a fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy, tumor cells are sucked into a very thin needle with a syringe.

A core needle biopsy uses a slightly larger needle to get a bigger sample.

There are pros and cons to both types of needle biopsies. FNA can usually confirm a cancer, but sometimes it doesn't provide enough information to be sure about the type of cancer. Some doctors prefer a core needle biopsy over an FNA, as it provides a larger sample and therefore, more information about the tumor. But the risk of complications is lower with FNA, especially when tumors are near large blood vessels.

The doctor may use ultrasound or CT scanning to guide the needle into the tumor. With this approach, the doctor slowly advances the needle while its position is checked by one of these imaging tests. When the images show that the needle is in the tumor, a sample is removed and sent to the lab to be looked at under a microscope.

Laparoscopic biopsy: Biopsy specimens can also be taken during laparoscopy. This lets the doctor see the surface of the liver and take samples of abnormal-appearing areas.

Surgical biopsy: In some cases, a biopsy sample may not be obtained until surgery that is meant to treat the tumor. An incisional biopsy (removing a piece of the tumor) or an excisional biopsy (removing the entire tumor and some surrounding normal liver tissue) can be done during an operation. But since doctors often prefer to know the exact type of tumor before surgery, other types of biopsy methods may be used.

Lab tests: Your doctor may order lab tests for a number of reasons:

To help diagnose liver cancer

To help determine what might have caused your liver cancer

To learn how well the liver is working, which may affect what types of treatments you can have

To get an idea of your general health and how well your other organs are working, which also may affect what types of treatments you can have

To see how well treatment is working

To look for signs that the cancer has come back after treatment

Alpha-fetoprotein blood (AFP) test:  It can be helpful in determining if a liver mass might be cancer. A low or normal value on this test means it is less likely you have liver cancer, while a high value makes it more likely. But this test is not always accurate, so other test and exam results also have to be taken into account.

This test can also be useful in people already diagnosed with liver cancer. The AFP level can help determine what treatment options might be appropriate. During treatment, the test can be used to help give an idea of how well it is working, as the AFP level should go down if treatment is effective. The test can be used after treatment as well, to look for possible signs that the cancer has come back (recurred).

Other blood tests: Liver function tests (LFTs): Because liver cancer often develops in livers already damaged by hepatitis and/or cirrhosis, doctors need to know the condition of your liver before starting your treatment. A series of blood tests can help assess the condition of the part of your liver not affected by the cancer. They measure levels of certain substances in your blood that show how well your liver is working.

If your liver is not healthy, you might not be able to have surgery to try to cure the cancer, as the surgery might require removal of a large part of your liver. This is a common problem in people with liver cancer.

Blood clotting tests: The liver also makes proteins that help blood clot when you are bleeding. A damaged liver may not make enough of these clotting factors, which could increase your risk of bleeding. Your doctor may order blood tests such as a prothrombin time (PT) to help assess this risk.

Tests for viral hepatitis: If liver cancer has not yet been diagnosed, your doctor may order blood tests to check for hepatitis B and C. Results showing you have been infected with either of these viruses may make it more likely that you have liver cancer.

These tests are also done in people newly diagnosed with liver cancer, if they haven’t been done previously.

Kidney function tests: Tests of blood urea nitrogen (BUN) and creatinine levels are often done to assess how well your kidneys are working.

Complete blood count (CBC): This test measures levels of red blood cells, white blood cells (which fight infections), and platelets (which help the blood clot). It gives an idea of how well the bone marrow, where new blood cells are made, is functioning.

Blood chemistry tests and other tests: Blood chemistry tests check the levels of a number of minerals and other substances in the blood, some of which might be affected by liver cancer. For example, liver cancer can cause blood levels of calcium to rise, while blood glucose levels may fall. Liver cancer can also sometimes cause cholesterol levels to go up, so this may be checked as well.

How is liver cancer staged?

The stage of cancer is a description of how widespread it is. The stage of a liver cancer is one of the most important factors in considering treatment options.
A staging system is a standard way for the cancer care team to sum up information about how far a cancer has spread. Doctors use staging systems to get an idea about a patient's prognosis (outlook) and to help determine the most appropriate treatment.
There are several staging systems for liver cancer, and not all doctors use the same system.

Staging System : This staging system is based on the results of the physical exam, imaging tests (ultrasound, CT or MRI scan, etc.) and other tests, which are described in the section “How is liver cancer diagnosed?” as well as by the results of surgery if it has been done.

                  

The TNM system for staging contains 3 key pieces of information:

T describes the number and size of the primary tumor(s), measured in centimeters (cm), and whether the cancer has grown into nearby blood vessels or organs.

N describes the extent of spread to nearby (regional) lymph nodes.

M indicates whether the cancer has metastasized (spread) to distant parts of the body. (The most common sites of liver cancer spread are the lungs and bones.)

Numbers or letters that appear after T, N, and M provide more details about each of these factors:

The numbers 0 through 4 indicate increasing severity.

The letter X means "cannot be assessed" because the information is not available.

T groups

TX: Primary tumor cannot be assessed

T0: No evidence of primary tumor

T1: A single tumor (any size) that hasn't grown into blood vessels

T2: Either a single tumor (any size) that has grown into blood vessels, OR more than one tumor where no tumor is larger than 5 cm (about 2 inches) across

T3a: More than one tumor, with at least one tumor larger than 5 cm across

T3b: At least one tumor (any size) that has grown into a major branch of a large vein of the liver (the portal or hepatic vein)

T4: The tumor (any size) has grown into a nearby organ (other than the gallbladder), OR the tumor is growing into the thin layer of tissue covering the liver (called the visceral peritoneum)

N groups

NX: Regional (nearby) lymph nodes cannot be assessed.

N0: The cancer has not spread to the regional lymph nodes.

N1: The cancer has spread to the regional lymph nodes.

M groups

M0: The cancer has not spread to distant lymph nodes or other organs.

M1: The cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes or other organs.

Stage grouping

Once the T, N, and M groups have been determined, they are then combined to give an overall stage, using Roman numerals I to IV (1 to 4):

Stage I: T1, N0, M0: There is a single tumor (any size) that has not grown into any blood vessels. The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage II: T2, N0, M0: Either there is a single tumor (any size) that has grown into blood vessels, OR there are several tumors, and all are 5 cm (2 inches) or less across. The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage IIIA: T3a, N0, M0: There is more than one tumor, and at least one is larger than 5 cm (2 inches) across. The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage IIIB: T3b, N0, M0: At least one tumor is growing into a branch of a major vein of the liver (portal vein or hepatic vein). The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage IIIC: T4, N0, M0: A tumor is growing into a nearby organ (other than the gallbladder), OR a tumor has grown into the outer covering of the liver. The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant sites.

Stage IVA: Any T, N1, M0: Tumors in the liver can be any size or number and they may have grown into blood vessels or nearby organs. The cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. The cancer has not spread to distant sites.

Stage IVB: Any T, Any N, M1: The cancer has spread to other parts of the body. (Tumors can be any size or number, and nearby lymph nodes may or may not be involved.)

Other liver cancer staging systems: The staging systems for most types of cancer depend only on the extent of the cancer, but liver cancer is complicated by the fact that most patients have damage to the rest of their liver along with the cancer. This also affects treatment options and prognosis.

Although the TNM system defines the extent of liver cancer in some detail, it does not take liver function into account. Several other staging systems have been developed that include both of these factors:

The Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer (BCLC) system
The Cancer of the Liver Italian Program (CLIP) system
The Okuda system
These staging systems have not been compared against each other. Some are used more than others in different parts of the world, but at this time there is no single staging system that all doctors use. If you have questions about the stage of your cancer or which system your doctor uses, be sure to ask.

Child-Pugh score (cirrhosis staging system): The Child-Pugh score is a measure of liver function, especially in people with cirrhosis. Because people with liver cancer often have 2 diseases, their cancer and cirrhosis, doctors treating liver cancer need to know how well the liver is working. This system looks at 5 factors, the first 3 of which are results of blood tests:

Blood levels of bilirubin (the substance that can cause yellowing of the skin and eyes)
Blood levels of albumin (a major protein normally made by the liver)
The prothrombin time (measures how well the liver is making blood clotting factors)
Whether there is fluid (ascites) in the abdomen
Whether the liver disease is affecting brain function
Based on these factors, liver function is divided into 3 classes. If all these factors are normal, then liver function is called class A. Mild abnormalities are class B, and severe abnormalities are class C. People with liver cancer and class C cirrhosis are often too sick for surgery or other major cancer treatments.
The Child-Pugh score is actually part of the BCLC and CLIP staging systems mentioned previously.
Localized resectable, localized unresectable, and advanced liver cancer
Formal staging systems such as those described before can often help doctors determine a patient's prognosis (outlook). But for treatment purposes, doctors often classify liver cancers more simply, based on whether or not they can be entirely cut out (resected). Resectable is the medical term meaning "able to be removed by surgery."
 
Localized resectable cancers: These cancers can be completely removed by surgery. This would include most stage I and some stage II cancers in the TNM system, in patients who do not have cirrhosis. Only a small number of patients with liver cancer have tumors that fall into this group.

Localized unresectable cancers: Cancers that have not spread to the lymph nodes or distant organs but cannot be completely respectable. This would include some early-stage cancers, as well as stage IIIA, IIIB, and IIIC cancers in the TNM system. There are several reasons that it might not be possible to safely remove a localized liver cancer. If the non-cancerous part of your liver is not healthy (because of cirrhosis, for example), surgery might not leave enough liver tissue for it to function properly. Or curative surgery may not be possible if your cancer is spread throughout the liver or is close to the area where the liver meets the main arteries, veins, and bile ducts.

Advanced cancers
Cancers that have spread to lymph nodes or other organs are classified as advanced. These would include stage IVA and IVB cancers in the TNM system. Most advanced liver cancers cannot be treated with surgery.
 
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