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Liver Cancer

What Makes the Liver So Important?

The liver is a large organ located in the upper right side of the abdomen, where it is found mostly underneath the ribs. It plays a very important role in maintaining the body's overall health. Most of the blood leaving the intestines travels through the liver, where it is filtered of both toxic chemicals and bacteria. The liver uses nutrients in the blood to provide energy for the body by storing and releasing sugars. It is also the main source of proteins necessary for many bodily activities such as normal blood clotting, growth, and nutrition. In addition, the liver creates bile, a fluid that is important for digestion. It is made by liver cells called hepatocytes and is then carried in tubes (the bile ducts) directly into the intestine or into the gallbladder, where it is stored until we eat. When these tubes are blocked for some reason, the bile backs up into the bloodstream, causing a yellow tinge to the eyes, mouth, and skin, and darkening of the urine; this is called jaundice.

What Is Liver Cancer?

Patient Comments

Usually, when people speak of liver cancer, they mean a cancer that has begun somewhere else in the body and then spread to the liver. This is called secondary or metastatic disease or liver metastases. Due to its very high blood flow, as well as other factors still poorly understood, the liver is one of the most common places for metastases to take root. Tumors that originally arise in the colon, pancreas, stomach, lung, breast, or elsewhere can spread through the bloodstream to the liver, and then presenting as liver metastases. These metastases sometimes cause pain or damage liver function. In the Western Hemisphere, most cases of "liver cancer" actually are secondary, or metastatic cancers that started in another organ.

Sometimes, cancer may arise in the cells of the liver itself. Cancer of the hepatocytes (the main functioning liver cell) is a primary liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma or hepatoma. Hepatoma usually grows in the liver as one or more round tumors, invading and destroying the normal tissue as it expands. Such primary liver cancer can also spread to other parts of the body including the lungs and lymph nodes. Within the liver, cancer can also arise from the tubes that carry the bile. These bile duct cancers called intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma are less common than hepatoma and hard to detect. Today's discussion will focus on hepatocellular carcinoma or hepatoma.

Last Reviewed 8/30/2017

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Patient Comments & Reviews

The eMedicineHealth doctors ask about Liver Cancer:

Liver Cancer - Patient Experience

Were you diagnosed with liver cancers? Please tell us about your experience.

Liver Cancer - Treatment

What therapy did you receive to treat your liver cancer? How successful was it?

Liver Cancer Symptoms

Early liver cancer often doesn't cause symptoms. When the cancer grows larger, people may notice one or more of these common symptoms:

  • Pain in the upper abdomen on the right side
  • A lump or a feeling of heaviness in the upper abdomen
  • Swollen abdomen (bloating)
  • Loss of appetite and feelings of fullness
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness or feeling very tired
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Yellow skin and eyes, pale stools, and dark urine from jaundice
  • Fever

These symptoms may be caused by liver cancer or other health problems. If you have any of these symptoms, you should tell your doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

National Cancer Institute

Medical Dictionary