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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.

Liver Cancer Statistics

  • In 2009, there were 1,304 new cases of liver cancer in Australia.
  • The five-year survival rate for liver cancer is 15.5 per cent.
  • Liver cancer is more common in men.
More cancer stats

Liver Cancer Overview

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

The liver is located in the upper right side of the abdomen, inside the rib cage. It is one of the largest organs in the body. The liver’s functions include filtering out harmful substances in blood, storing nutrients, converting fats to energy, and helping the blood to clot.

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

  • 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 and occurs when cancer cells travel through the blood from other gastrointestinal organs, like the colon or stomach, become lodged in the liver and become tumourous. These cancer cells can also be 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 Symptoms

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 Treatment

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.

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.

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