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The liver is crucial to our survival. (Read about "The Liver") It performs a number of tasks that keep our body working correctly. It is unusual, in that it gets blood from two sources. (Read about "Vascular System") Blood comes from the lungs bringing oxygen and from the intestine bringing nutrients. The liver is often called a giant filter and in many ways, it is. As nutrients pass through, they are changed so they can be used by the body. Toxins are also changed, so they can be better handled and/or removed by the body. Alcohol for instance, is metabolized by the liver.
Because of all it does, we could not live without a liver. But the liver is not indestructible. The American Cancer Society (ACS) says that over 16,000 people discover they have liver cancer each year. Although the survival rate is very low, usually less than 10 percent according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), researchers are making progress in developing treatments for liver cancer. (Read about "Cancer: What It Is")
There are different types of primary liver cancer, including:
Metastatic liver cancer is cancer that has spread to the liver from another part of the body. Metastatic cancer is usually named after the organ from which it originated.
The liver weighs about three pounds and is located inside the rib cage under the right lung. Because of its location, it is difficult to discover liver cancer early. (Read about "Cancer Check-ups") This is one of the reasons for the low survival rate. ACS says there are seldom symptoms in the early stages. Some symptoms of liver cancer as it develops however can include weight loss, pain in the stomach area and jaundice. (Read about "Jaundice") The only sure way to know if you have liver cancer is a biopsy. (Read about "Biopsy")
Liver cancer is relatively rare in the United States, accounting for about one and a half percent of all cancers, according to NCI. The rate is much higher in certain areas of Africa and East Asia. The rate there is growing while it is dropping in the United States, according to ACS.
NCI suspects that the high rate of Hepatitis B and C (Read about "Hepatitis B" "Hepatitis C") in those areas is a major factor. Hepatitis is considered a risk factor for liver cancer. Other risk factors according to ACS and NCI include:
Many risk factors can be controlled. There are now vaccines for Hepatitis B and other healthy habits that can be used to avoid infection. A healthy life style of not abusing alcohol, stopping smoking and avoiding dangerous chemicals and other substances can lower a person's risk.
The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the liver or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:
Treatments for liver cancer depend on the extent of the cancer and if it has spread. (Read about "Cancer Treatments") Surgery, with the removal of the entire tumor, has the potential to cure liver cancer, according to ACS. If the cancer has spread or is made up of a number of tumors, surgery may not be able to get all of the cancer. There is also a form of surgery called cryosurgery where the tumors are destroyed by freezing them. Another treatment is called ethanol ablation where alcohol is injected into the tumors to kill the cancer cells. NCI says radiofrequency thermal ablation, which uses intense heat to destroy tumors, can also be used, particularly on liver lesions that are too difficult or too spread out to remove with surgery.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. ACS says a method called hepatic artery infusion, where the cancer drugs are injected directly into the artery taking blood to the liver, is often used. (Read about "Infusion Therapy")
Radiation therapy - using high-energy rays - may be used, especially to shrink a liver tumor or provide relief from symptoms such as pain. (Read about "Radiation Therapy") Three-dimensional radiation therapy is a type of external-beam radiation treatment that uses computers to target the exact location of a tumor, thus reducing damage to surrounding tissue. Targeted drug therapy may also be an option in cases of advanced liver cancer.
For some liver cancers, a liver transplant may be an option. (Read about "Transplants") In addition to transplanting an entire liver, there may also be an option for a partial transplant from a living donor who is a close relative.
More Cancer Information:
For a list of individual types of cancer, see Cancer: What It Is
All Concept Communications material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.
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