Liver Cancer Facts

What is liver cancer?

Liver cancer is a disease in which cancerous cells form in the liver, an organ that plays a major role in digestion, metabolism and detoxification in the human body. These cancerous cells do not function normally and may divide uncontrollably, crowding out healthy liver cancer cells and possibly invading other organs in the body.

The majority of primary liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma, which arises from the organ’s main cells, called hepatocytes. This cancer typically accompanies other liver diseases, such as hepatitis B or C infections, metabolic disorders and alcohol-related diseases such as cirrhosis.

Other, less common types of primary liver cancer include:

  • Fibrolamellar carcinoma: a rare subtype of hepatocellular carcinoma that is slower growing and less aggressive than other primary liver cancers
  • Angiosarcomas, hemangiosarcomas and hemangioendotheliomas: fast-growing tumors arising from blood vessels of the liver
  • Hepablastomas: a highly treatable liver cancer found in young children

Benign tumors may also form in the liver. These typically do not cause symptoms and are usually discovered in imaging tests for other conditions. They may not require treatment unless they cause bleeding or abdominal pain.

What risk factors are linked to liver cancer?

Factors that can elevate risk liver cancer risk include:

  • Alcohol: Heavy alcohol use, especially over a long time, increases liver cancer risk.
  • Aflatoxin-tainted foods: Aflatoxin is a harmful compound produced by a fungus that grows in improperly stored grains and nuts — particularly in hot and humid environments. Consuming this toxin can increase one’s liver cancer risk.
  • Diseases and conditions that raise liver cancer risk
    • Hepatitis B or C infection
    • Cirrhosis: a chronic and progressive disease in which normal liver cells are replaced with scar tissues
    • Hematochromatosis: a condition that causes excess iron to be stored in the liver
    • Type 2 diabetes
    • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Ethnicity: Asians and Pacific Islanders have the highest risk of developing liver cancer, but the risk is also elevated for African-American, American Indian and Latino populations as well, compared to non-Hispanic whites.
  • Gender: Liver cancer is more common in men.
  • Tobacco use

What are the symptoms of liver cancer?

Common symptoms of liver cancer include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes)
  • Discomfort or pain in the upper right side of the abdomen or the lower right side of the rib cage
  • Poor appetite or feeling full after consuming small portions of food
  • Swelling of the abdomen or legs
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

Although these symptoms can be caused by other conditions, you should check with your doctor to get a definitive diagnosis.

Sources: National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society