When cells in the liver become abnormal, grow out of control, and form a cancerous tumor, the disease is called primary liver cancer. Primary liver cancer is also called malignant hepatoma or hepatocellular carcinoma.
Primary liver cancer is not the same disease as cancer that spreads (metastasizes) to the liver from another part of the body (secondary liver cancer). The liver is often the site of secondary tumors that result from the spread of cancer from another organ, such as the colon or breast. When cancer spreads, the cancer cells in the secondary tumor are like those of the original cancer. This original cancer is called the primary cancer, and is named for the part of the body in which it began. When the disease spreads, it keeps the name of the primary cancer. Thus, cancer that begins in the colon or breast and spreads to the liver is called metastatic colon cancer or metastatic breast cancer.
Possible Causes of Liver Cancer
In the United States, primary liver cancer is uncommon. About 5,000 new cases are diagnosed in this country each year, accounting for less than 1/2 of 1 percent of all cancers.
In other parts of the world, however, primary liver cancer is one of the most common types of cancer and causes more deaths than any other type of cancer. Worldwide, this disease is a major health problem. Rates are highest in Asia and Africa and are believed to be related to infection with the hepatitis-B virus (HBV).
Scientists estimate that 10 to 20 percent of people infected with HBV will develop liver cancer. Infection with this virus is common in developing countries. Many infants are infected with HBV at birth because of the high rate of infection among women of childbearing age. This is an important factor because scientists feel that the longer one has been infected with the virus, the greater the likelihood of developing liver cancer. Evidence of HBV infection is also found in nearly one-fourth of Americans with liver cancer.
The use of a vaccine against HBV is recommended to protect health care workers and others who are often exposed to this virus. Researchers have found that people with certain other liver diseases have a higher-than-average chance of developing primary liver cancer. For example, about 5 percent of people diagnosed as having cirrhosis of the liver (a progressive disorder that leads to scarring of the liver) eventually develop liver cancer. However, it has not been determined that cirrhosis is actually a precancerous condition; some research suggests that lifestyle factors, such as alcohol consumption and malnutrition, cause both cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Symptoms of Liver Cancer
Liver cancer is difficult to detect in an early stage because its first symptoms usually are vague. As with other types of cancer, this disease can cause a general feeling of poor health. Liver cancer can lead to loss of appetite, weight loss, fever, fatigue, and weakness. As the tumor grows, patients may have pain that begins in the upper abdomen on the right side and reaches into the back and shoulder. Some patients can feel a mass in the upper abdomen.
Liver cancer can also lead to abdominal swelling and a feeling of fullness or bloating. Patients may have episodes of fever and nausea. Some patients develop jaundice, a condition in which the skin and the whites of the eyes become yellow, and the urine may become dark. Symptoms such as these can be caused by primary or secondary cancer in the liver, by a benign (noncancerous) liver tumors or by other conditions. Symptoms should be reported to the doctor so a diagnosis can be made.
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