What is cancer?
Our body consists of cells. Normal cells grow, multiply and die in an orderly manner and are replaced by new cells. Cancer cells do not die but continue to multiply in a disorderly manner. Over time they can form a mass which may be malignant, in other words cancerous.
The liver is the largest internal organ. It is located beneath your diaphragm and above your stomach.
The liver is essential to normal functioning of the body. It assists with digesting proteins and fats, removing toxins from the body, producing substances that help with clotting and releasing bile to aid digestion.
What is liver cancer?
There are different types of liver cancer and the most common type is hepatocellular cancer. Lifestyle factors such as alcohol abuse and exposure to cancer-causing viruses cause most cases of liver cancer
What increases my risk for liver cancer?
A RISK FACTOR increases the likelihood that you will develop a disease. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will develop a disease. Different cancers have different risk factors. Risk factors for liver cancer include:
- Gender: Men are more likely to develop liver cancer than women
- Hepatitis Infection: The most common strains of the hepatitis virus associated with liver cancer are Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. The virus is commonly transmitted between IV drug users by sharing needles. It is also transmitted during unprotected sex, during childbirth and through blood transfusions.
- Cirrhosis: This is a medical condition in which the cells of the liver develop scar tissue, often because of alcohol use.
- Inherited metabolic conditions including haemochromatosis.
- Exposure to aflatoxins: These are cancer-causing substances made by a fungus that contaminates peanuts and grains.
- Chemical exposure e.g. arsenic
- Anabolic steroids
What decreases my risk?
Any factor that lowers your risk of developing a disease is a PROTECTIVE FACTOR. These factors do not guarantee that a disease will not develop. Different cancers have different protective factors. Possible protective factors against liver cancer are:
- Avoiding exposure to the Hepatitis virus by knowing the health status of every sexual partner you have. Additionally, you should avoid body piercing and tattooing and drug use as improperly sterilized needles can spread the virus.
- Get vaccinated: A vaccine is available to prevent Hepatitis B. It is a preventative vaccine and offers long-term protection specifically against the Hepatitis B virus.
- Avoid alcohol and tobacco products.
- Limit exposure to cancer-causing chemicals
What are the signs and symptoms of liver cancer?
There are often no signs or symptoms in the early stages. Typical signs and symptoms of liver cancer are:
- Enlarged liver
- Enlarged spleen
- Worsening of pre-existing liver conditions
- Loss of appetite and weight
- Abdominal pain especially in the upper right part of the abdomen and extending into your back and shoulder.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weakness and fatigue
- Abdominal swelling
Screening tests are for persons who have no signs or symptoms of a disease.
There is no routine screening test for persons of average risk for liver cancer.
Persons at high risk should be screened every 6 months with an ultrasound and alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) blood test. An elevated AFP blood test may be indicative of liver cancer BUT elevated AFP levels can also be caused by non-cancerous disease. It is also possible to have liver cancer without significantly elevated levels of AFP. For this reason it is not recommended as a screening test for the general population.
Persons considered to be at high-risk include those who have chronic hepatitis B or C infection, cirrhosis induced as a result of alcohol abuse and those with inherited metabolic conditions.