The liver is the largest organ in the body. It performs many important functions, including breaking down and storing nutrients, secreting bile into the intestines to help in nutrient absorption, and removing toxic waste. The liver also produces clotting factors that keep cuts or injuries from bleeding excessively. Although the specific cause of liver tumors is unknown, it is believed that they develop when the DNA of cells in the liver change, causing the cells to grow uncontrollably and eventually form a tumor. These tumors can be either benign or malignant. Primary liver cancer refers only to cancer that originates in the liver.
Types Of Malignant Liver Tumors
Malignant liver tumors can be fatal, and should be treated as soon as possible to address their symptoms and prevent them from spreading to other areas of the body. Types of malignant liver tumors include:
The most common form of liver cancer in adults, hepatocellular carcinoma accounts for approximately four out of five cases. It has two types of growth patterns. One type begins as a single tumor that increases in size, with the cancer not spreading to other parts of the liver until it is in its late stages. The second type is made up of many small tumors, and usually occurs in those who already have liver damage. It is the type most often seen in the United States.
It originates in the liver’s bile ducts, the small tubes that carry bile to the gallbladder. Cholangiocarcinoma accounts for only ten to twenty percent of liver cancers.
Angiosarcoma And Hemangiosarcoma
These are rare tumors that originate in cells that line the liver’s blood vessels. They are very hard to treat because they grow quickly, and are often not found until they are too widespread to be removed.
An extremely rare kind of liver cancer that usually manifests itself in children younger than four. Surgery and chemotherapy result in good outcomes in approximately two out of three cases, although, if the tumors have spread beyond the liver, the disease is much more difficult to treat successfully.
Types Of Benign Liver Tumors
Benign liver tumors are common. Usually asymptomatic, they are most often detected during imaging tests for other conditions. Because they do not spread to other areas of the body, they usually do not pose a serious health risk. If necessary, they can be removed by surgery.
The most common type of benign liver tumor, a hemangioma is composed of a mass of abnormal blood vessels. In most instances, it produces no symptoms and does not need to be treated.
Focal Nodular Hyperplasia
The second-most-common form of benign liver tumor. Occurring mainly in women between 20 and 30 years old, a focal nodular hyperplasia tumor usually does not cause symptoms or require treatment.
A rare type of benign tumor, a hepatocellular adenoma is most often found in women of childbearing age. This type of tumor is rarely detected because it usually does not cause symptoms. In rare instances, it may rupture and bleed into the abdominal cavity, which is why doctors often recommend that large adenomas be surgically removed.
Risk Factors For Liver Tumors
There are certain factors that may increase the risk of developing malignant liver tumors. Some of these factors may include:
- Age 60 or older
- Chronic viral hepatitis
- Type 2 diabetes
- Excessive alcohol consumption
Signs Or Symptoms Of Liver Tumors
Signs or symptoms of malignant liver tumors usually do not manifest themselves until the tumors are in their later stages. However, as the tumors grow, symptoms may include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weakness or fatigue
- Enlarged liver
- A hard lump on the body’s right side, below the ribs
- Pain on the right side of the upper abdomen, or back and shoulder
Diagnosis Of Liver Tumors
In addition to a physical exam, a number of tests may be performed to confirm the presence of malignant liver tumors. Which tests are chosen may depend on a person’s age and medical condition, the type of tumor suspected, particular signs and symptoms, and previous test results, assuming that any have been done. Tests may include:
- Blood tests
- CT scan
- PET scan
Treatment Of Liver Tumors
Treatment for malignant liver tumors usually depends on the liver’s condition, the size, location and number of tumors, whether the tumors have spread and the patient’s general health. If a malignant tumor is localized and the rest of the liver is healthy, surgery may be performed to remove the tumor. A liver transplant may be another option if the cancer has not spread. If neither of these options is viable, treatment may include:
- Thermal ablation
- Ethanol injections
- Radiation therapy
- Drug therapy
There is ongoing research into finding better ways of preventing and treating liver cancer. They include developing blood tests that can diagnose the disease earlier. Research is also being done into finding treatments for liver cancer that are safer and more effective.