Liver Cancer

Note: The information on cancer types on the ACRF website is not designed to provide medical or professional advice and is for information only. If you have any health problems or questions please consult your doctor.

  • What is Liver Cancer?

    Liver cancer occurs when abnormal cells within the liver grow in an uncontrolled way.

    There are two main types of liver cancer which are named after the part of the liver the cancer first develops in.

    • Hepatocellular carcinoma: This liver cancer type starts in the main cells of the liver. It is the most common type of liver cancer. This type of cancer occurs more often in men than women and is usually seen in people aged 50 or older.
    • Cholangiocarcinoma (Bile Duct Cancer): Arises from the tissues in the bile duct, which is a 4-inch to 5-inch long tube that connects the liver and gallbladder to the small intestine. Primary cholangiocarcinoma is a rare disease.

    Liver cancer can either be primary or metastatic. Metastatic liver cancer is much more common than primary liver cancer in Australia. It occurs when cancer cells travelling through the blood from other gastrointestinal organs, like the colon or stomach, become lodged in the liver and become tumorous. These cancer cells can also spread in the lymphatic system.

    Primary liver cancers, which are rarer in Western countries, begin in the liver. Hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common type.

    People with cirrhosis of the liver, or those who have been infected with a hepatitis virus have a higher risk of getting primary liver cancer.

  • Liver Cancer Risk Factors

    There are a number of risk factors when it comes to liver cancer. These risk factors include: 

    • Heavy alcohol consumption 
    • Chronic infection with Hep B or hep C
    • Cirrhosis 
    • Type 2 diabetes 
    • Non alcoholic fatty liver disease 
    • Obesity 
    • Tobacco use 
    • Age – liver cancer is more common in older people over the age of 60 
    • Family history
  • Liver Cancer Signs and Symptoms

    Signs and symptoms of liver cancer often don’t show up until the cancer later stages of the disease, once the cancer is more advanced. Signs and symptoms of liver cancer can include:

    • A feeling of discomfort on the upper right side of the abdomen
    • A hard lump on the right side of the abdomen, below the rib cage
    • Pain in the upper back, around the right shoulder blade
    • Unexplained weight loss
    • Jaundice – a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
    • Unusual tiredness
    • Loss of appetite and/or nausea.

    It is important to note that there are a number of conditions that may cause these symptoms, not just liver cancer. If any of these symptoms are experienced, it is important to discuss them with your GP.

  • Liver Cancer Prevention

    You can lower your risk of getting liver cancer by living a healthy lifestyle. This means engaging in regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, controlling your weight, limiting your consumption of alcohol and not smoking tobacco. 

    Another way to decrease your risk is to protect yourself against hep B or hep C infection or if diagnosed to seek adequate treatment to prevent cirrhosis.

  • How to Test For Liver Cancer

    If liver cancer is suspected, a number of tests can be performed to provide a diagnosis. Some of the more common tests include:

    • A physical examination.
    • Examination of a blood sample.
    • Imaging/scanning of the liver and nearby organs.
    • Examination of the inside of the abdomen using a laparoscope (a thin tube with a light on the end).
    • Examination of a tissue sample (biopsy) from the liver.

    If liver cancer is diagnosed, treatment options for liver cancer depend on the stage of the disease, the severity of symptoms and the person’s general health.

  • Is Liver Cancer Curable

    Liver cancer can be difficult to cure as often it is not caught in the early stage as signs and symptoms may not show up until later. If liver cancer is caught in its early stages, this then makes it easier to cure before the cancer spreads. Once liver cancer has been cured through treatment, it may come back so regular check ups are required.

  • Liver Cancer Treatment

    Treatment options can include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and/or targeted therapies to destroy cancer cells.

    The liver can be difficult to operate on because of its position near major blood vessels and the rib cage and the fact that it is large, dense and delicate.

    However, in most instances the most effective treatment for liver cancer is surgical removal of the diseased section. A full liver transplant may only be considered if a patient has another liver disease, like cirrhosis – which can make the liver very weak. Surgery will also depend on the severity of the cancer.

    Image guided procedures, for instance, may be performed through the skin without an incision to control the spread of cancer. These include ablation, where a chemical agent is used to destroy the cancer and embolisation, where the tumour’s blood supply is cut off.

    Chemotherapy may be used after surgery to increase treatment success. Radiation therapy, however, is not used.

  • Can elevated liver enzymes be cancer?

    Elevated liver enzymes could be a warning sign of possible liver damage, irritation or imflammation. It can often be treated easily or resolved on its own through analysis of a patients diet and reviewing any medicatins they may be on. In rare cases, and only when high level are recorded could they incidcate liver disease

  • What is the first stage of liver cancer?

    Stage 0 is very early stages of liver cancer whereby a single tumour is detected and is smaller than 2cm with The Child-Pugh score as A. The liver cancer stages described using The Child-Pugh score cirrhosis staging system which records the livers working function based on the damage caused by cirrhosis. The Child-Pugh score A = the liver is working well, and cirrhosis is not advanced.

  • Is liver cancer hereditary?

    People who are diagnosed with liver cancer often have an underlying liver disease called cirrhosis, however, liver cancer can also develop in people a family history of liver cancer

  • Can an ultrasound detect liver cancer?

    An ultrasound is one of the various forms of screening options to detect liver cancer. It uses sound waves to construct an image of the liver, these waves then create an image on a computer monitor.

  • Are liver cysts cancerous?

    Liver cysts are sacs filled with fluid of various size and are usually non-cancerous and come in many forms; simple liver cyst, choledochal cyst, hyatid cysts and polycystic liver disease. In some case choledochal cysts can develop a rare type of cancer called cholangiocarcinoma.

  • Do liver cysts turn into cancer?

    Usually, liver cysts are benign growths which your doctor will monitor, to ensure they do not form into liver cancer or hepatocellular carcinoma. However, some people are more at risk of liver cancer developing from a cyst if they have hepatitis B or C, have cirrhosis or haemochromatosis. Also, if you are living with obesity.

  • Are liver lesions cancerous? Are liver nodules cancerous?

    Benign liver lesions are non-cancerous growths or lumps in the liver. They develop due to numerous reasons caused by a variety of different conditions. They often do not need treatment; your doctor will monitor them should they wish to.  

  • Can hepatitis lead to liver cancer?

    Hepatitis B and C are viruses that spread through contact with blood and body fluids. 

    When viral hepatitis infects the hepatocytes, the immune system attacks the virus and causes the liver to become inflamed. This infection is usually cleared by the immune system. If infection lasts more than 6 months, the liver inflammation may lead to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis increases the risk of developing primary liver cancer. 

    If you have hepatitis B, you may have regular tests to make sure you don’t develop liver problems. If you do have any liver damage, you may be given medicines that help manage the infection and prevent further damage. 

    If you have hepatitis C, you may be given a medicine that can cure the infection in most people. 

    Even after successful hepatitis treatment, people with cirrhosis need to have regular check-ups with their doctor. People at high risk, including people with chronic hepatitis B, cirrhosis or family history of liver cancer can have regular check-ups with their doctors to find cancer at an early stage. 

  • What is the life expectancy of someone with liver cancer?

    It is not possible to accurately estimate the life expectancy of person with liver cancer as many factors such as age, sex and other health factors need to be taken into consideration. However, statistics over the years have shown the five-year survival rate has increase 9.8% since 1999. It was recorded that the survival rate for a person with liver cancer between 1999 – 2003 was 12.2% and the latest recording during 20142018 revealed the survival rate is now 22% .

  • Is liver cancer fast growing?

    Hepatocellular Carcinoma (HCC) is usually often in people with pre-existing liver disease or conditions and is often aggressive. Other less common liver cancer types such as Cholangiocarcinoma or Angiosarcoma, can sometimes be less.

Liver cancer statistics

  • 2,905

    new cases are estimated to be diagnosed in 2022

  • 22.0%

    is the five-year relative survival rate for liver cancer

  • 67.7

    years is the median age of diagnosis

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Cancer in Australia 2017, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

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