Liver Health

Updated 06 January 2015

Liver cancer

Cancer that begins in the liver cells is known as primary liver cancer. Most begins in the hepatocytes (liver cells) and are known as hepatocellular carcinoma.

The function of the liver
The liver is one of the largest organs in the body and receives one third of its blood supply (1500 ml/min). It has a left and a right lobe, and is divided into eight segments. The liver is located under the rib cage and fills the upper right part of the abdomen.

Benign tumours are not cancer. They do not spread to other parts of the body and tend not to recur when surgically removed. Although considered less dangerous than malignant tumours, they can have serious effects due to their location or the pressure they exert.

  • Hepatitis B or hepatitis C infection: these viruses are passed from person to person through blood or sexual contact. An infected mother can also transfer the virus to her baby. A person with chronic infection has a 100-fold increased risk of liver cancer compared with an uninfected person.
  • Cirrhosis: this is a disease in which liver cells are damaged and replaced by scar tissue. There are many causes, including infections, alcohol abuse, certain drugs and toxins. About 20 percent of people with cirrhosis will develop liver cancer.
  • Aflatoxin: this is a poison produced by the Aspergillus mould on improperly stored foods like grain and nuts.
  • Male gender: liver cancer is three times more common in men.

  • Pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen on the right side. The pain may extend to the back and right shoulder blade.
  • A swelling on the right side below the rib cage
  • Swelling of the abdomen (ascites)
  • Jaundice
  • Intermittent nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of weight and appetite
  • Weakness or feeling generally unwell

  • Stage of the disease: size of the tumour, how much of the liver has been affected, whether there is spread to other parts of the body
  • Liver function: how well the liver is working, including whether or not there is underlying cirrhosis.
  • The patient’s general health
  • Effects of the treatment

  • Early-stage HCC: the cancer is localised to the liver, has not spread and can be completely removed by surgery. Potentially curable.
  • Intermediate-stage HCC: the cancer is localised to the liver, has not spread, but cannot be completely removed by surgery. Treatment is still aimed at increasing life expectancy.
  • Late-stage HCC: the cancer has spread throughout the liver or to other parts of the body. Incurable.

  • Resection
  • Liver transplantation

  • Cryoablation
  • Radiofrequency thermal ablation (RFA)
  • Percutaneous ethanol injection (PEI)
  • Transarterial chemoembolization (TACE)
  • Laser and microwave therapy
  • Regional radiotherapy

  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted molecular therapy
  • Symptomatic treatment

  • Relief of pain and other symptoms
  • Psychological and spiritual care for patients to allow them to come to terms with dying
  • A support system to maintain personal integrity and self-esteem
  • A system to support the family to cope with the patient’s final days and their bereavement

  • Be vaccinated against hepatitis B.
  • Nuts and grains should be properly stored.


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.