Liver Cancer Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is liver cancer?
The official medical term for liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma. This is a tumor that starts in the liver itself. It is important to know that this is different than a cancer that may have started elsewhere in the body (such as colon cancer) and has spread to the liver.
Q: Who is at risk to get liver cancer?
Liver cancer generally only develops in people who have some type of liver disorder. The most common causes of liver cancer are chronic infection with either hepatitis B or hepatitis C or cirrhosis caused by long term alcohol use. Other less common risk factors include diabetes and very old age.
Q: Is cirrhosis of the liver the same thing as liver cancer?
No. Cirrhosis is another word for the scar tissue that develops when the liver has been damaged by long-term infection with hepatitis or alcohol use. Cirrhosis is not cancer itself, but the presence of cirrhosis greatly increases the risk for developing liver cancer. In fact, any person with cirrhosis should undergo screening to check for liver cancer on a regular basis. Guidelines recommend an ultrasound of the liver every six months in patients with cirrhosis.
Q: What are the signs and symptoms of liver cancer?
Unfortunately, liver cancer does not produce any symptoms until very late stages. Therefore, in order to catch liver cancer in its early and curable stages, it is important for people at high risk to be under close surveillance by a doctor. Similar to how women need regular mammograms, patients with chronic hepatitis B or C or cirrhosis need routine ultrasounds to check for liver cancer.
Q: How is liver cancer diagnosed?
If an ultrasound shows a suspicious area in the liver, either a CT scan or MRI is obtained next. These imaging tests can accurately diagnose liver cancer based on the way it looks and reacts to intravenous dye. Biopsies are only rarely needed to diagnose liver cancer. Although there is no blood test that can be used to detect liver cancer, a blood test called AFP can help confirm the diagnosis if the level is high.
Q: Is surgery always the preferred treatment for liver cancer?
Currently, liver cancer can only be treated by surgical removal of the tumor or by removing the entire liver and performing a liver transplantation. Patients with very small tumors can sometimes undergo ablation, a procedure where a probe is placed into the center of the tumor and energy is used to destroy the tumor. Other treatments such as embolization, radiation, and chemotherapy are used for more advanced stages of liver cancer and can help slow tumor growth.
Q: Can liver cancer be prevented?
Once cirrhosis (or scarring of the liver) has set in, it is generally not reversible. Therefore, the best way to prevent liver cancer is to avoid liver damage by treating any underlying hepatitis and avoiding excess alcohol use.