What is liver cancer?
Liver cancer is a cancer affecting the cells of your liver. It can develop when liver cells become abnormal and keep multiplying and growing. The abnormal cells form a mass or lump called a tumour.
It is the sixteenth most common type of cancer in Australia and the seventh leading cause of cancer deaths in Australia.
Primary liver cancer is a malignant tumour that starts in the liver. Most people with primary liver cancer have hepatoma or hepatocellular cancer. This begins in the main type of liver cell, known as a hepatocyte.
Secondary liver cancer starts in another part of the body and spreads to the liver. It is more common in Australia than primary liver cancer.
There are other less common types of liver cancer, including:
- bile duct cancer or cholangiocarcinoma
- liver cancer that starts in the blood cells, called angiosarcoma
- a rare type of liver cancer that only affects young children, called hepatoblastoma.
The following are generalised symptoms, and not specific just to liver cancer:
- Discomfort in the upper right abdomen
- A swollen abdomen
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whitening of the eyes)
- Easy bruising or bleeding
- Loss of appetite or feelings of fullness after small meals
- Unintentional weight loss
- Pale, chalky bowel movements and dark urine.
If you have any of these symptoms see your GP or health specialist.
Diagnosis may involve several tests, such as blood tests, imaging scans, and biopsy.
What causes liver cancer and how many people does it affect?
Liver cancer can affect anyone.
The leading cause of liver cancer in Australia is hepatitis C, followed by alcohol consumption and hepatitis B.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) related liver cancer is also increasing as an indirect cause.
In Australia, more than 2800 people are diagnosed with primary liver cancer each year. It affects three times more men than women.
The rate of primary liver cancer has almost doubled since 2002, which is possibly due to hepatitis B and C infections, obesity, type 2 diabetes, drinking too much alcohol, and our ageing population. More than 70% of cases occur in people over 60. Since 1982, incidence of liver cancer has increased by an average of 4.3% per year in males and 4.8% in females. Mortality from liver cancer has increased by 2.5% per year in males and 2.2% in females.
Treatment of hepatocellular carcinoma varies greatly depending on the number and size of the tumours, whether it has spread outside of the liver, and the liver’s general health. Treatment can consist of curative treatment like surgery and some radiology procedures, other radiological treatments, or tablet chemotherapy. Sometimes people with liver disease may have a liver transplant.
Treatment may be tailored by a team of specialists including a gastroenterologist and hepatologists (liver specialists), surgeons, radiologists, oncologists (cancer specialists) and nurses.
References and support organisations
Cancer Council Victoria
Contact Cancer Support
See Your Guide to Best Cancer Care (booklet) and Understanding Liver Cancer (booklet).