Liver cancer: causes, symptoms, prevention and treatment

This type of cancer develops in liver cells and is one of the most common in the world.

About 840,000 new cases of liver cancer are diagnosed each year , making it the seventh most common cancer in the world. It is cancer that affects the hepatocytes, the cells that make up the liver.

The liver is a vital organ made up of hepatocytes, a type of cells that are arranged to form a tissue that allows the liver to fulfill its functions. Thus, hepatocytes fulfill many essential functions for the body.

Production of bile to help digestion, storage or release of glucose, clearance of drugs and other toxic substances from the blood, regulation of blood clotting, contribution to the metabolism of carbohydrates, lipids and proteins … The liver is vital to ensure good health.

Losing its function due to cancer is a huge risk to life. Even with early treatment, about 70% of cases end fatally. Knowing its causes and signs is the best way to prevent it or, at least, to detect it in time.

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What’s liver cancer?

All cancer consists of an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of the cells of our own body , which, due to a mutation in their genetic material, lose the ability to regulate the speed at which they reproduce.

This causes them to grow more than they should, which ends up causing the formation of a tumor, which can be malignant and receive the category of cancer.

Liver cancer is that type of cancer that develops in liver cells or hepatocytes, the cells that, as we have seen, make up the structure and give the liver its functionality. Given its importance, any disease that affects its physiology can be fatal. And cancer is the clear example of this.

It is one of the most dangerous types of cancer not only because of the risk of losing liver function, but because in most cases, the disease does not show signs of its existence until it is in very advanced stages, when it is already it is very difficult to solve the problem.

It is important to bear in mind that, despite the fact that cancer that arises in the liver exists, the most frequent is that liver cancer is the result of a cancer originating in another region of the body (stomach, breasts, lungs, colon …) that it has spread to this organ.

Liver cancer is more common in men than women and usually appears in people over 50 years of age.

Causes

One of the main difficulties in the fight against this type of cancer is that the causes are not too clear. Not only because it is difficult to determine what causes liver cells to become tumorous, but because, as we have mentioned, many cases of liver cancer stem from the metastasis of other cancers .

The main cause of liver cancer is hepatitis, a liver infection caused by different viruses, which infect and damage liver cells. There are different types of this disease: hepatitis A (the virus is transmitted by contact with the feces of an infected person), hepatitis B and hepatitis C (both by contact with the blood of an infected person or through sexual intercourse).

Any of these forms of hepatitis inflames the liver and greatly increases the risk of liver cancer, making it a direct cause of this oncological disease.

However, it is also very common for cancer to appear in healthy people who have never suffered from hepatitis, in which case the causes remain unclear. It is believed that its development could be due to a complex combination of genetic and environmental factors.

What is known is that there are risk factors that increase the risk of liver cancer : suffering from cirrhosis (liver damage mainly due to alcoholism), suffering from diabetes , having other liver diseases, being exposed to aflatoxins (toxic substances produced by some species of mold that grow on poorly preserved products), have a too large accumulation of fat in the liver, etc.

Symptoms

The nature of the symptoms is also one of the main problems, since it does not usually appear until the cancer is in advanced stages of the disease , at which time it is more difficult for treatments to be successful.

Anyway, being attentive to these symptoms (especially if you are within the population at risk) is of vital importance, since recognizing the symptoms and going to the doctor as soon as possible, will mean that the diagnosis and subsequent treatment is as quick as possible. .

The symptoms are due to liver damage, which is not evident until the liver has lost much of its functionality, and are as follows:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Whitish stools
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting

Although cancer is difficult to diagnose, what is easier to detect are the diseases that usually lead to its development. In other words, if a person has suffered from hepatitis, cirrhosis, or has abused alcohol, they should be especially attentive to these symptoms and undergo regular check-ups with their doctor, especially when they enter their fifties.

Prevention

The causes of most liver cancers are still unknown , so it is difficult to establish preventive measures. Anyway, what we can do is establish guidelines to, on the one hand, reduce the damage we do to the liver and, on the other hand, protect ourselves from liver diseases.

1. Reduce liver damage

Like any other organ in the body, it is normal for the liver to be damaged with age . In any case, we must try to minimize the damage we do to the liver, something that can be achieved with the following measures.

It is important not to abuse alcohol, exercise, eat a healthy diet, not eat too much sugar (diabetes increases the risk of liver cancer), maintain a healthy weight …

All of these actions are preventive measures, as they prevent excessive damage to the liver and, therefore, reduce the risk of liver cancer.

2. Protect yourself from liver disease

In particular, protect yourself from the three forms of hepatitis that we have seen previously , since these viral diseases are the main cause of liver cancers.

Therefore, it is important to get vaccinated against hepatitis B, since the vaccine can be administered to both children and adults. It is also vitally important, considering that two forms of hepatitis are transmitted through sexual contact, not to have unprotected relationships unless the partner is trusted and is known not to have the disease.

The hepatitis can also be transmitted through needles with infected blood, so that intravenous drugs are a huge danger.

In addition, you also have to watch the food you eat (so that they are not contaminated with the hepatitis A virus) and, in case you want to get a tattoo or a piercing, you have to make sure that the place is they respect the necessary hygienic measures.

Diagnosis

Detection of liver cancer begins when the symptoms mentioned above are observed or when the doctor suspects the presence of this disease.

First of all, the patient undergoes a blood test , because with the results obtained, it can be seen if there is any problem in liver function.

In case something strange is seen, the doctor will order different diagnostic imaging tests. Ultrasound, MRI, and CT scans can determine the presence of a foreign body in the liver.

Generally, blood tests and these imaging tests are usually sufficient to determine the presence of liver cancer. However, the doctor may perform a biopsy (removal of a tissue sample from the liver) to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment

Once liver cancer has been diagnosed, treatment should begin as soon as possible . The techniques that are performed will depend on both the stage of development of the cancer and its nature, as well as the health status of the patient and whether the cancer has metastasized or not.

If the cancer is diagnosed in the early stages, which is rare, it will be localized only to the liver and surgery will suffice. If the liver damage is not very serious, with a surgical removal of the tumor, the disease can be resolved. If it is otherwise severely damaged, a liver transplant may be required, one of the most complicated and expensive surgical procedures in the world.

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However, since symptoms do not appear until the disease is very advanced, surgery is most likely not enough. In this case, the doctor will have to opt for chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, drug administration, or a combination of several.

Treatment is not always successful and, in fact, it is one of the cancers with the lowest survival rate . Therefore, the best treatment is prevention. If the preventive measures mentioned above are followed, the chances of developing this cancer are greatly reduced.

 

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