The liver is the body's largest internal organ. Located on the right side of your body below your lungs and under your ribs, the liver serves numerous vital functions including breaking down fat, filtering certain harmful substances from the blood, and producing cholesterol. Liver cancer is a disease that begins in the liver rather than one that expands into the liver. Liver cancer is one of the more dangerous forms of the disease because there are few symptoms until the cancer has reached advanced stages.
The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 18,000 Americans will die from liver cancer in 2009 and another 22,620 new cases of either bile duct or primary liver cancer are expected to be diagnosed. Men are more than twice as likely as women to develop liver cancer.
Liver cancer rarely presents symptoms in the early stages of its development. The tumours, which are small in their early stages, are difficult to detect by routine physical examinations, and there are currently no reliable screening tests available although an alpha-fetoprotein blood test can sometimes detect the presence of various kinds of cancer including liver cancer. Ultrasound technology may also be able to detect the presence of a tumour.
Most of the symptoms caused by liver cancer in its later stages may also be caused by other conditions. The American Cancer Society encourages patients who experience unexplained weight loss, recurring loss of appetite, fever, nausea, jaundice, a noticeable mass under the skin on the right side, unexplained stomach pain, or swollen veins in the belly area to seek medical care.
The tumours involved in liver cancer may secrete hormones that can result in high levels of calcium in the blood. This can produce nausea, constipation, confusion or a general feeling of weakness. These hormones may also result in low blood sugar. Some men may experience breast enlargement or shrinking of the testicles.
If the physician suspects liver cancer, the patient may be subjected to a battery of tests that may include X-rays and CT scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or ultrasounds. The doctor may also recommend an angiogram to map the flow of blood in the blood vessels or a laparoscopy, which can give him or her a better view of your internal organs.