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Liver Cancer


What is liver cancer? Liver cancer is cancer that begins in your liver. Liver cancer can affect the ability of your liver to remove harmful material from your blood. It can also reduce the ability of your liver to help digest food, and store vitamins and minerals. The two most common types of liver cancer are hepatocellular carcinoma and cholangiocarcinoma.

What increases my risk for liver cancer?

  • Long-term infection with hepatitis B or C virus

  • Heavy alcohol use

  • Exposure to toxic substances

  • Long-term inflammation caused by gallstones in your liver or bile duct

  • Health conditions such as nonalcoholic fatty liver, type 2 diabetes, obesity, or hematochromatosis

  • Inherited genes

  • Smoking

What are the signs and symptoms of liver cancer? In the early stages you may not have symptoms. As liver cancer spreads, you may have the following:

  • Abdominal pain

  • Weakness and fatigue

  • Weight loss without trying

  • Loss of appetite, nausea, or vomiting

  • Abdominal swelling

  • Yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes

How is liver cancer diagnosed?

  • Blood tests can show signs of liver cancer and check the function of your liver.

  • An ultrasound, CT, or MRI may show the location and size of the tumor. You may be given contrast dye to help the tumor and blood vessels show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.

  • A biopsy is a procedure to remove a small piece of tissue from your liver. It may be done using a needle, a scope, or open surgery. The tissue sample will be sent to a lab to be tested for cancer.

How is liver cancer treated? Treatment depends on the type, size, and location of the tumor. You may need more than one of the following:

  • Surgery is done to remove tumors that are small and have not spread to other parts of the body.

  • Medicines may be used to reduce the size of the tumor. Medicine may also be used to reduce blood flow to the tumor or kill cancer cells.

  • Ablation or embolization is done to directly treat the tumor or reduce blood flow to the tumor. These procedures involve using radio waves, lasers, or light, or injecting medicine near the tumor.

  • Radiation therapy uses x-rays or gamma rays to treat cancer. Radiation kills cancer cells and may stop the cancer from spreading. It may also be used to shrink the tumor and decrease pain.

  • A liver transplant is surgery to replace your damaged liver with a donor liver.

How can I manage my symptoms?

  • Rest as needed. Rest often throughout the day. Alternate times of activity with times of rest.

  • Eat small meals throughout the day. You may not feel hungry, but it is important that you eat. Proper nutrition can give you more energy and help you feel better. A dietitian can help you find ways to get enough protein, calories, vitamins, and minerals. Ask if you need to limit sodium (salt).

  • Drink liquids as directed. Too much or not enough liquid intake can cause swelling in your legs and abdomen. Ask how much liquid to drink each day.

  • Do not drink alcohol. Alcohol harms your liver. It can also make your symptoms worse.

  • Do not smoke. If you smoke, it is never too late to quit. Ask for information if you need help quitting. Avoid being around others who smoke.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.

  • You have increased weakness or fatigue.

  • You have appetite loss or weight loss.

  • You have increased abdominal pain or swelling.

  • You vomit or cannot keep food or liquids down.

  • You have increased jaundice or your urine is dark.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • You are confused, or very drowsy and difficult to wake.

  • You cough up or vomit blood.

  • You feel lightheaded, short of breath, or have chest pain.


You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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