Liver Cancer: What Are Your Chances of Having It?

With over 800,000 people diagnosed each year worldwide with liver cancer, it is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths globally. Liver cancer, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), accounts for over 700,000 deaths yearly. About 22,000 men and 9,000 women are diagnosed yearly with liver cancer in the United States. It is the most common cancer in some countries in sub-Sahara Africa and Southeast Asia.

The liver is the largest internal organ in the body and it performs several functions that are crucial to survival. Some primary functions of the liver include:

  • Bile excretion and production.
  • Excretion of bilirubin, drugs, cholesterol, and hormones
  • Metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
  • Enzyme activation
  • Storage of glycogen, minerals, and vitamins.
  • Detoxification and purification of blood detoxification and purification

The liver is one of the organs in the body most susceptible to injuries due to its many functions.  

Liver cancer is cancer that originates from the cells of your liver. Liver cancer begins when the cells in the liver start to grow uncontrollably. It consists of malignant hepatic tumors on or in the liver. Your liver is similar to a football-sized organ that resides in the upper right side of your abdomen, underneath your diaphragm and on top of your stomach. The liver consists mainly of cells known as hepatocytes. Other cells, including bile ducts that carry bile to the intestines and gallbladder from the liver, are also present in the liver.

Different types of cancer that include cholangiocarcinoma, hepatocellular carcinoma, intrahepatic, and hepatoblastoma can develop in the liver. However, hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common type of liver cancer. This begins in the hepatocytes which are the main liver cell. The other types of liver cancer are less common.

Cancer can spread to the liver or from the liver. Cancer that spreads to the liver is more common compared to cancer that begins in the liver cells. Cancer that starts in another part of the body, such as lung, colon, or breast, and then expands to the liver is called metastatic cancer and not liver cancer. Metastatic cancer is named after the organ in which it originates, such as metastatic lung cancer to describe cancer that starts in the lung and expands to the liver.

Types of Liver Cancer

The classification of liver cancer depends on its source of origin. Liver cancers that start in the liver are termed primary liver cancer, while those that spread from their origins such as the colon, lung, stomach, breast, or pancreas to the liver are classified as secondary liver cancer.

Primary liver cancers are common in Africa and Asia. While metatarsal liver cancers are more common in Europe and the U.S.

Primary Liver Cancer

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC)

HCC is the most common type of primary liver cancer in adults. HCC can have disparate developmental patterns:

  • Some start as a single tumor that develops larger. It spreads to other liver parts when it gets to the advanced stage.
  • A second type appears to begin with as many small cancer nodules across the liver, not just a single tumor. This is more common in people with cirrhosis (chronic liver damage) and is the most prevalent pattern observed in the United States.

HCC can be further classified into many subtypes. In most cases, these subtypes do not affect prognosis (outlook) or treatment. However, it is important to recognize the fibrolamellar subtype. Though rare, it consists of less than a percent of HCCs and is more common in women aged 35 and lower.

Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer)

10 to 20 percent of cancers that originate in the liver are intrahepatic cholangiocarcinomas. These cancers begin in the cells that line the bile ducts (these are tubes that convey bile to the gallbladder) inside the liver.

Angiosarcoma and hemangiosarcoma

These are rare primary liver cancers that originate in cells surrounding the blood vessels of the liver. Exposure to vinyl chloride or thorium dioxide (Thorotrast) can increase your risk of developing these types of cancers. Exposure to radium or arsenic, or an inherited condition referred to as hereditary hemochromatosis may also cause these cancers.  No likely cause was seen in about half of all cases diagnosed.


This is an uncommon liver cancer that is peculiar to children, usually in children aged 4 and below. About 70 percent of children with hepatoblastoma have been treated successfully with chemotherapy and surgery. However, hepatoblastoma becomes harder to treat if it extends outside of the liver.

Diagnosis of Liver Cancer

Physicians can diagnose liver cancer using the following tests and procedures:

  • Blood tests: This may reveal abnormalities in the liver functions.
  • Imaging tests: CT, MRI, or ultrasound may also reveal impairment in the liver functions.
  • Extracting a sample of liver tissue for testing: In some cases, your physician might request for the removal of a small piece of liver tissue for laboratory test to make a definite confirmation of liver cancer.  Your physician during a liver biopsy will use a thin needle via your skin to extract a tissue sample. This will be examined for cancer cells under a microscope. Bruising, bleeding, and infection might result from a liver biopsy.

Treatment of Liver Cancer

Based on current research, there is no definite cure for liver cancer. However, early diagnosis and treatment can increase survival. Once liver cancer is detected, your physician will work to verify the extent that is the stage of cancer. Staging tests would help to determine the location and size of cancer, and if it has spread to other parts of the body.  

Treatment for primary liver cancers would depend on many factors, including the stage of cancer, your preference, age, and overall health.


Liver cancer is classified into four stages (Stage I-IV). Staging cancer helps your doctor decide on the appropriate course of treatment

  • Stage I: The tumor is still within the liver and has not spread to other organs or locations.
  • Stage II: Either there are several small tumors all within the liver, or one tumor larger than 2cm that have extended into the blood vessels.
  • Stage III: There are various large tumors of varying sizes, with at least 5cm or one tumor that has extended into the main blood vessels. Cancer may have also gotten to the gallbladder.
  • Stage IV: Cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Once the stage has been found, a course of treatment can begin.

Treatment Options For Liver Cancer


Your doctor might recommend an operation to remove the tumor or do a liver transplant. This, however, would depend on your overall health and the stage of liver cancer.

Localized Treatments:

Your doctor might opt for localized treatments. These are treatments administered directly to either the cancer cells or the locations enveloping the cancer cells. These include:

  • Heating cancer cells
  • Freezing cancer cells
  • Injecting alcohol into tumor cells
  • Placing beads filled with radiation in the liver
  • Injecting chemotherapy drugs into the liver

Radiation Therapy:

This involves the use of high-powered energy from sources such as protons and X-rays to annihilate cancer cells and reduce tumors. During treatment, the radiologists will carefully beam energy to the liver, while saving the surrounding healthy tissue.

Your doctor might consider this treatment option if other treatment options haven’t helped your condition.

Targeted drug therapy:

This type of treatment option focuses on distinct abnormalities within the cancer cells. The drug blocks these abnormalities, thereby causing the cancer cells to die. Targeted drug therapy does not work for every cancer cell, and your doctor will test your cancer cells in the laboratory to determine if this can help.


This treatment option uses your immune system to attack the cancer cells. Cancer cells produce their protein that blinds the activities of your immune system. Immunotherapy works by inhibiting the blinding process by the cancer cells.


This treatment option involves the use of drugs in killing cancer cells. This is administered in pill form or through a vein in your arm or both.


Liver cancer can affect anyone; though, some regions are more at risk than others of certain types of liver cancer. There is no cure for liver cancer, and the chances of survival diminish with the advancement of the liver stage. However, early diagnosis and treatment can increase a person’s survival rate.

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