Liver cancer is a condition that is characterized by the abnormal or cancerous growth of liver cells. Liver cells are also called as hepatocytes. Hence, liver cancer can also be called as hepatocellular cancer. Although other cell types can become cancerous, the most common cause of liver cancer is hepatocellular in origin.
The type of cancer that begins in the liver's own cells is referred to as primary liver cancer. Cancer cells from other organs can metastasize and invade the liver. They can be cancer cells coming from the lungs, colon, or breasts. The development of liver cancer from the other body organs is known as secondary liver cancer.
There are several types of liver cancer, which are based on the type of cells that have become cancerous. These types of liver cancer have been found to induce different signs and symptoms. They include:
- Hepatocellular Carcinoma - This is a type of liver cancer that starts in the liver cells or hepatocellular cells. It is also the most common type of liver cancer, which accounts for 75 percent cases of liver cancer around the world.
- Cholangiocarcinoma - It is the cancer of the bile duct. This type of cancer starts in the ducts within the liver.
- Fibrolamellar Hepatocellular Carcinoma (FHCC) - This is a rare type of hepatocellular carcinoma.
- Angiosarcoma - It is cancer that begins in the liver's blood vessels.
- Secondary Liver Cancer - It is also called as liver metastasis. It is liver cancer that develops when primary cancer from other organs metastasize and spread to the liver.
Signs and Symptoms
1. Weight Loss
Weight loss happens to people with liver cancer due to their reduced appetite. Many times, health specialists define a significant weight loss by losing more than 10 percent of your own body weight. Weight loss in liver cancer may be caused by many factors. To understand weight loss that is caused by liver cancer, it is good to know the functions of the liver and how liver cancer can affect each function. The functions of the liver include:
- Nutrient Storage - The liver receives blood through the portal vein coming from the gut. The blood picks up proteins, fats, vitamins, and carbohydrates. These nutrients are carried to the liver where they are stored. If your liver is damaged by liver cancer, it means fewer nutrients will be stored resulting in weight loss.
- Metabolism - The liver converts fats and other foods into energy that is used in the body. If the liver is unable to undergo anabolism (constructive metabolism), it means that fewer proteins are produced.
- Production of Bile - Bile is a substance produced in the liver and is used to break down fats in the gut. Bile is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder.
- Protein Production - Some proteins such as albumin are produced in the liver. Albumin is very important in the electrolyte balance between the tissues and the blood. Electrolyte imbalance or water loss in the body is likely one of the reasons why people with liver cancer lose a significant amount of weight.
- Detoxification - Your liver breaks down harmful substances in your body and gets rid of them through the excretion of feces and urine. These substances include metabolic waste products, some drugs, and alcohol. If your liver detoxification function is altered due to liver cancer, harmful substances are likely to affect your nervous system and other body parts resulting in stress and weight loss.
2. Swollen Abdomen
The swelling of the tummy or abdomen can occur in liver cancer due to the following two reasons:
- Fluid buildup and accumulation in the liver - This condition is referred to as ascites. The fluid builds up and accumulates in the liver since the liver is congested. This congestion squeezes your blood vessels inside the liver making the blood that flows in it get back to the veins. The pressure in the veins increases and then forces a fluid leak from the veins to the abdomen.
- Enlargement of the liver due to growing cancer - There can be swelling in the right side of your abdomen. The veins may also grow in size as a result of cancer and can be seen under the skin surface. Fluid can also leak into the abdomen. In such cases, your liver is unable to make blood proteins, which can result in weight loss as well.
Jaundice is a condition that is characterized by a yellow discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes such as the white part of the eyes and tongue. This condition also makes your skin to itch. It also tells that your liver is not working properly or there is a blockage in your bile duct.
Bilirubin is the substance that is responsible for the yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes. One of the major functions of the liver is filtering out waste products such as bilirubin, which is formed after the degradation of old red blood cells. However, if your liver is damaged as a result of liver cancer, bilirubin is likely to accumulate in the blood instead of being eliminated.
4. Other Liver Cancer Symptoms
If your liver becomes larger as a result of liver cancer, you may feel pain in your stomach and experience some abdominal discomforts. You are also likely to experience pain in your right shoulder. The enlarged liver stimulates the nerves in the diaphragm. Since these nerves are connected to the right shoulder, they are likely to make you feel the pain. The diaphragm is a thin sheet of muscle found in the ribs.
Other possible signs and symptoms of liver cancer include:
- Reduced appetite extending to about five weeks
- Feeling sick
- Bloating after meals or feeling full even after eating a small meal
- Itchy abdomen
- A sudden worsening of your health condition due to chronic cirrhosis or hepatitis
- Increased sweating and having a high body temperature
When to Call the Doctor
Seek immediate medical care if you are:
- Coughing up blood
- If your eyes, tongue, and skin turn yellowish in color
- If you feel abdominal discomforts or if your tummy is swollen
Although these signs and symptoms are unlikely to be caused by liver cancer, it is still important to see your doctor for a detailed checkup.
Most of the symptoms discussed above are very similar to those of other types of liver infections and diseases. If your symptoms are for liver cancer, they continue to manifest and worsen as your cancer advances. It is, therefore, important to seek your doctor’s advice for an accurate diagnosis.
In some rare cases, other diseases or conditions may develop due to liver cancer. Rare immune disorders such as paraneoplastic syndromes can cause symptoms in other body parts that can be very helpful in the diagnosis of liver cancer.
Some symptoms of paraneoplastic syndromes that may resemble those of liver cancer include:
- Testicular Atrophy - Testicle shrinkage
- Erythrocytosis - Increased count of red blood cells
- Hypocalcaemia - Decreased or low levels of blood sugar
- Hypoglycemia - Reduced levels of blood sugar
- Gynecomastia - Enlargement of the breast mainly in men
- Hypercholesterolemia - Increased levels of cholesterol