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Liver Cancer

The liver, one of the largest organs of the body, has many important functions that keep a person healthy. It removes harmful material from the blood, produces enzymes and bile that help digest food and converts food into substances needed for life and growth.

Cancer of the liver, which may be primary or secondary cancer, involves an uncontrolled growth of cells. Primary cancer arises within the liver and in its early stages exists only in the liver. Secondary liver cancer, also called metastatic cancer, originates in another organ, such as the colon, stomach, pancreas or breast and then spreads to the liver. Because secondary cancer is present in at least two organs, the treatment possibilities are more limited than for primary liver cancer.

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Primary liver cancer can affect anyone, but it occurs most frequently in people with advanced liver disease. In the United States, the risk is greatest for those with longstanding hepatitis B, advanced hepatitis C and cirrhosis. Because hepatitis viruses are so widespread, liver cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death worldwide.

Certain inherited conditions also predispose a person to liver cancer, including tyrosinemia in children, a rare disorder in which the body can't effectively break down the amino acid tyrosine, and untreated hemochromatosis, a disorder that causes the body to absorb and store too much iron, in adults. Common to all these conditions is chronic liver inflammation and injury.

One of the objectives of current research at UCSF is to determine why liver inflammation and injury lead to liver cancer.

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Cancer in the liver may be primary or secondary, also called metastatic. Primary cancer arises within the liver and in its early stages exists only within the liver. At an early stage, primary liver cancer may cause no symptoms at all. More advanced disease may cause loss of appetite, weight loss, fever, fatigue and weakness.

Secondary liver cancer is the term for cancer that originates in another organ, such as the colon, stomach, pancreas and breast, and then spreads to the liver. As the cancer grows, pain may develop in the upper abdomen on the right side and may extend into the back and shoulder. With advanced disease, the signs of liver failure appear, which include abdominal swelling and a feeling of fullness or bloating and jaundice, a condition in which the skin and the whites of the eyes become yellow and the urine becomes dark.

In making a diagnosis of liver cancer, your doctor will evaluate your medical history and perform a careful physical examination. Certain tests also will be recommended.

For people at increased risk of developing primary liver cancer, such as those with chronic viral hepatitis or cirrhosis, the current recommendation is to have an alpha-fetoprotein blood test and an ultrasound examination of the liver, at least annually. While not perfect, these tests increase the chances of detecting liver cancer at an early stage.

Certain blood tests are used to see how well the liver is functioning.

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Surgery

Surgery is the most common treatment for cancer of the liver.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of X-rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation comes from a machine outside the body, or external radiation therapy. Radiation can be used alone or in addition to surgery and chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy for liver cancer is usually put into the body by inserting a needle into a vein or artery. This type of chemotherapy is called a systemic treatment because the drug enters the bloodstream, travels through the body, and can kill cancer cells outside the liver. In another type of chemotherapy called regional chemotherapy, a small pump containing drugs is placed in the body. The pump puts drugs directly into the blood vessels, called arteries, that go to the tumor.

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UCSF Research & Clinical Trials

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.