Frequently Asked Questions About Liver Cancer

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about liver cancer.

Q: Where is the liver in the body, and what does it do?

A: The liver is the largest solid organ in the body. It weighs almost 3 pounds. It is located behind the ribs on the right side of the body, under the right lung. It is important for many metabolic functions.

Q: Can a person live without a liver?

A: No. The liver stores nutrients that help feed the body when a person has not eaten for a few hours. It also changes other nutrients into more basic elements before sending them to other parts of the body to be used. The liver helps break down sugars, starch, fats, and proteins.

The liver also makes albumin, a protein that helps the body balance fluids. The liver makes clotting factors, which help blood thicken or clot when a person is bleeding. Bile made in the liver is important for digesting food and for other bodily functions.

One of the liver’s most important functions is to collect and destroy poisons in the body. The liver breaks down and removes medications. When the liver is not working well, chemicals can build up inside the body and cause damage.

Q: What is liver cancer?

A: Liver cancer is cancer that starts in the cells of the liver. It is not the same as cancers that start somewhere else in the body and then spread to the liver. Doctors call those cancers liver metastases.

Liver cancer is rare in the United States and Europe . It is the most common form of cancer in some African and East Asian countries, though. There are 4 main kinds of liver cancers.

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma

  • Cholangiocarcinoma

  • Hepatoblastoma

  • Angiosarcoma

Q: Who gets liver cancer?

A: Liver cancer is rare in the United States. In 2010, the American Cancer Society estimates, there will be 24,120 new cases of primary liver cancer and bile duct cancer (17,430 in men and 6,690 in women). Men are more likely to get liver cancer than women. Liver cancer is more common in some African and East Asian countries than in North America and Europe. In some areas of Africa and Asia, it is the most common type of cancer.

Q: What are the symptoms of liver cancer?

A: A person can have liver cancer for months or years before having symptoms of the disease. People do not usually show symptoms of liver cancer until the cancer grows large enough to push against other parts of the liver or against other organs in the abdomen.

People with liver cancer may have any or all of these symptoms.

  • Weight loss

  • A sudden lack of appetite that lasts for a long time or a feeling of being very full after eating a small meal.

  • Lump or mass in the upper-right side of the abdomen or the stomach

  • Pain in the abdomen

  • Swollen abdomen (bloating)

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin)

  • Cirrhosis that gets worse

  • Fever

All these symptoms can be caused by many other medical problems. If you have any of these symptoms, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Q: How is liver cancer diagnosed?

A: If you think you have liver cancer, you should have a medical exam. Many tests may be needed to confirm liver cancer. The steps to diagnosing liver cancer are a medical history, physical exam, and imaging tests. Tests for liver cancer include the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and CT (computed tomography) scan.

Q: Should everyone get a second opinion for a diagnosis of liver cancer?

A: Many people with cancer get an opinion from a second doctor. There are many reasons to get a second opinion. Here are some of those reasons.

  • Not feeling comfortable with the treatment decision

  • Being diagnosed with a rare type of cancer

  • Having several treatment options

  • Not being able to see a cancer expert

Many people have a hard time deciding on a liver cancer treatment. It may help to have a second doctor review the diagnosis and treatment options before starting treatment. It is important to remember that in most cases, a short delay in treatment will not lower the chance that it will work. Some health insurance companies even require that a person with cancer seek a second opinion. Many other insurance companies will pay for a second opinion if asked.

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