Liver cancer is a rare form of cancer. Liver tumours (metastases) caused by other types of cancer, such as breast cancer or bowel cancer, are much more common than actual liver cancer. For a long time, the disease has very few or only non-specific symptoms. As a result, liver cancer is usually discovered when it has already reached an advanced stage. It is treated using various surgical procedures, as well as the local destruction of the tumour cells.
The liver is an organ that is often affected by metastases when a person has cancer. However, liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma) – cancer that actually develops in the liver itself – is much more rare and accounts for only 2% of all cancer diagnoses. Liver cancer primarily affects older people (50 years and over) and men suffer from liver cancer more frequently than women. The causes of liver cancer are largely unknown, however over 80% of liver cancer diagnoses are associated with chronic alcohol consumption or chronic liver inflammation (hepatitis).
Both liver cancer and metastases in the liver caused by other types of cancer exhibit no symptoms or only non-specific symptoms for a long time. These non-specific symptoms include loss of appetite, nausea, weight loss or pain/tenderness on the right side of the upper abdominal area. Often liver cancer is only detected when a patient starts showing signs of jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes).
Various examinations are used to diagnose liver cancer. Blood tests can determine the patient’s liver function and detect any tumour markers. Ultrasound examinations, computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) make it possible to precisely locate the tumour. A liver biopsy is often required to decide whether it is actually liver cancer or a metastasis, however, a biopsy is not mandatory if the radiological findings are typical.
The choice therapy depends on the type of cancer and how far it has progressed. Smaller tumours or individual metastases can be surgically removed, or destroyed using a laser or chemoembolisation. Chemoembolisation involves directly injecting a chemotherapeutic agent into the tumour. When removing larger tumours, large parts of the liver must also be removed. This procedure is used when the tumour is very large, but has not yet spread beyond the liver. Sometimes a liver transplant is also performed. You can find out more about the surgical treatment options in the liver surgery section.