Liver cancer is cancer that affects the liver. Like all cancers, liver cancer occurs as a result of abnormal cell growth that leads to cancerous cells multiplying faster than they can die, causing problems with liver function as well as the rest of the body. Cancer that affects the liver can either spread from other organs or start in the liver itself and spread. The second type is called primary liver cancer. Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common type of primary liver cancer, and it’s also one of the most rapidly increasing causes of cancer in the United States.
The liver plays a number of important roles in the body. When cancerous cells and liver damage disrupt liver function, this can result in complications throughout the body. If liver cancer is not treated or removed, it can spread to other areas and organs.
The risk of liver cancer is higher in patients who have other long-term liver diseases and complications. This includes patients with cirrhosis from any cause, those infected with hepatitis B or hepatitis C viruses, those who have inherited autoimmune liver diseases, and those who have fatty liver disease from alcohol or metabolic factors. Many liver cancer cases are connected to hepatitis viruses, but patients aren’t always aware that they have the virus.
In addition to liver disease, there are other risk factors associated with liver cancer. Risk factors for liver cancer include:
Liver cancer is usually diagnosed by imaging tests like ultrasound, CT, or MRI. Arizona Liver Health also uses FibroScan to help diagnose liver problems. The non-invasive, painless, ultrasound-based machine measures fatty infiltration and scarring within the liver and informs the healthcare team’s future approach to treating liver cancer and other diseases. There is also the alpha fetoprotein tumor marker blood test that can be used to diagnose liver cancer. In some cases, a liver biopsy might be performed in order to confirm a liver cancer diagnosis.
Proper liver cancer treatment can help ensure the best possible outcome for a patient. Patients who have liver cancer risk factors or other conditions should work with their healthcare teams to manage their health and conditions by maintaining a healthy weight and blood sugar level, eating a well-balanced diet, and exercising on the advice of their doctor. Patients should also get vaccinated against hepatitis B, the flu, and pneumonia. Patients with liver diseases should abstain from alcohol consumption and talk to their provider if quitting alcohol is difficult.
For patients who have any stage of liver cancer, there are treatment options available. A patient’s liver cancer treatment will depend on a number of variables. The size and location of the cancer, how well the liver functions, and the patient’s overall health will play a role in deciding which options are tried and which might be most successful. There are multiple options for treating liver cancer and more options emerging in clinical trials—some of them can be used in combination to treat the cancer. Early diagnosis is important so that individuals who are at risk for liver cancer need regular check-ups.
Some patients do well with surgery to remove cancerous cells and some of the healthy tissue surrounding them. If a patient has small tumors, otherwise normal liver function, and their liver cancer is not yet advanced, surgical removal of the tumors might be a good option.
Liver transplant surgery is a procedure where surgeons remove the entire liver and replace it with one from a donor. For otherwise healthy patients whose cancer hasn’t spread beyond the liver and are good transplant candidates, this could be a viable treatment option.
The complete eradication of cancerous cells is called ablation, and it can be done with extreme temperatures. For liver cancer patients who can’t undergo surgery but have small tumors, ablation kills cancer cells in the liver by using extreme heat or cold. Ablation includes procedures like radiofrequency ablation, cryoablation, or ablation with an alcohol injection or microwave.
To deliver chemotherapy or radiation directly to cancerous cells, doctors use a catheter passed through the blood vessels and into the liver. They use it to deliver chemotherapy drugs or small spheres that contain radiation to the cancer cells.
If a patient’s liver cancer treatments aren’t effective or have stopped working and the condition is advanced, they could benefit from drug therapy. Oral or intravenous drugs may help slow the progression of liver cancer.
If surgeries or other treatments are ineffective for a patient, radiation therapy might help. Radiation therapy uses the energy from x-rays or protons to shrink tumors and slow the cancer’s growth. A specialized type of radiation therapy called stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) uses many beams of radiation accurately targeting a single point in the body.
Some patients have the opportunity to try new treatment options that are in development. Arizona Liver Health can give patients with liver cancer, fatty liver disease, and other liver conditions access to clinical trials.
Liver cancer patients in the Chandler, Glendale, and Tucson areas can find quality, compassionate care and state-of-the-art treatment options through Arizona Liver Health. Arizona Liver Health has access to leading technology and research to deliver better outcomes for liver cancer patients. To refer a patient or schedule an appointment, call 480-470-4000 or fill out a contact form online.