The liver is the largest internal organ in the body and is located behind the rib cage below the right lung. It’s shaped like a pyramid and has two lobes, which are further subdivided into segments. The liver receives blood from two main sources: the hepatic artery and the portal vein. The hepatic artery delivers oxygen-rich blood from the heart, and the portal vein delivers nutrient-rich blood from the intestines.
An essential part of the digestive system, the liver has several important functions, including:
Processing and storing several nutrients that are later used for energy or to build and repair tissues
Collecting and filtering blood
Making clotting factors to help stop bleeding
Secreting bile into the intestines to assist in nutrient absorption
Breaking down and removing toxic waste from the blood
Maintaining proper blood sugar levels
An estimated 30,640 new cases of liver cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Approximately 80 percent of those are hepatocellular carcinomas, which are sometimes called hepatomas. The remaining 20 percent of liver cancers are intrahepatic cholangiocarcinomas, angiosarcomas, hemangiosarcomas and hepatoblastomas.
Liver cancers are rarely found in the early stages of the disease. Because the liver is mostly covered by the right rib cage, small tumors often go undiagnosed during routine physical exams. By the time the tumor can be felt, it is likely already large. In addition, signs and symptoms typically don’t develop until the cancer has already progressed. When symptoms do occur, they commonly include abdominal pain, weakness, fatigue, unexplained weight loss, an enlarged liver and/or spleen (felt as a mass under the right ribs), itchiness, jaundice and fever.
When you receive a diagnosis of liver cancer, it’s important to know what may have caused the disease. Chronic infection with the hepatitis B or C viruses leading to cirrhosis of the liver is the most common risk factor for liver cancer. Liver cancer is most common in people age 45 or older, and the rate of new cases is higher among men than women and highest for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Other factors that raise the risk of developing liver cancer include heavy alcohol consumption, obesity, type 2 diabetes, inherited metabolic diseases, long-term exposure to certain chemicals, anabolic steroid use and arsenic consumption.
Following your diagnosis, your doctor needs to determine the extent of the disease – a process called staging – so he or she can choose the best treatment option for you. Treatments for liver cancer usually include surgery, ablation, embolization, radiation therapy, targeted therapy and chemotherapy. You might also receive palliative (supportive) therapy to relieve any symptoms and side effects you may experience.
While a diagnosis of liver cancer can be overwhelming, empower yourself by learning about your specific cancer and your treatment options, so you can make informed decisions through the course of your cancer journey. By becoming an active partner, you make your health care team immeasurably stronger and more effective. Knowledge leads to sound choices, which bring comfort and hope.