Liver cancer begins in the cells of your liver – an essential organ in the body that has many important metabolic functions. The earlier liver cancer is diagnosed, the more effective treatment is likely to be so it is important to be aware of the warning signs. Unfortunately, the symptoms of liver cancer are often vague and do not appear until the cancer is at an advanced stage.
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One warning sign to watch out for is itchy skin.
The symptom is often an indirect result of jaundice – another common symptom associated with liver cancer.
As Cancer Research UK explains, jaundice is a build up of bile in the bloodstream and body tissues.
“The build up happens when there is a blockage somewhere in the bile system. Bile contains yellow pigments that make your skin and the whites of your eyes go yellow. It also makes you itch,” says the charity.
Other common symptoms of liver cancer
Other common warning signs include:
- Unintentional weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling very full after eating, even if the meal was small
- Feeling and being sick
- Pain or swelling in your abdomen (tummy)
- Jaundice (yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes)
- Itchy skin
- Feeling very tired and weak
The above symptoms are more likely to be the result of a more common condition, such as an infection, but it’s best to have them checked, advises the NHS.
You should also contact your GP if you’ve previously been diagnosed with a condition known to affect the liver, such as cirrhosis or a hepatitis C infection, and your health suddenly gets worse, says the health body.
Who is at risk?
As the NHS explains, the exact cause of liver cancer is unknown, but most cases are associated with damage and scarring of the liver known as cirrhosis.
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Cirrhosis can have a number of different causes, including:
- Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol over many years – read more about alcohol misuse
- Having a long-term hepatitis B or hepatitis C viral infection
- Haemochromatosis – an inherited disorder in which iron levels in the body slowly build up over many years
- Primary biliary cirrhosis – a long-term liver disease in which the bile ducts in the liver become damaged
It’s also believed obesity and an unhealthy diet can increase the risk of liver cancer because this can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
In fact, a large-scale study published in the journal Cancer Research found that compared to having a normal body mass index (BMI), being overweight was associated with a 21 percent increased risk of liver cancer.
The body mass index (BMI) is a measure that uses your height and weight to work out if your weight is healthy.
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Being obese was associated with an 87 percent increased risk of liver cancer, and the more obese, the higher the risk.
As the NHS points out, you may be able to significantly reduce your chances of developing liver cancer by:
- Avoiding or cutting down on alcohol
- Eating healthily
- Exercising regularly
- Taking steps to reduce your risk of becoming infected with hepatitis B and C
“Although liver cancer is relatively uncommon in the UK, the chances of developing the condition are high for people with risk factors for the condition,” cautions the health site.
“Over the past few decades, rates of liver cancer in the UK have risen considerably, possibly as a result of increased levels of alcohol consumption and obesity,” it adds.
How is liver cancer treated?
Treatment for liver cancer depends on the stage the condition is at. If diagnosed early, it may be possible to remove the cancer completely.
According to the NHS, treatment options in the early stages of liver cancer include:
- Surgical resection – surgery to remove a section of liver
- Liver transplant – where the liver is replaced with a donor liver
- Microwave or radiofrequency ablation – where microwaves or radio waves are used to destroy the cancerous cells
“However, only a small proportion of liver cancers are diagnosed at a stage where these treatments are suitable,” notes the health body.
In these circumstances, treatments such as chemotherapy are used to slow down the spread of the cancer and relieve symptoms such as pain and discomfort, it adds.
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