One million people. That is the number of deaths worldwide caused by liver cancer each year. In 2008, it was estimated that in the United States alone, over 21 thousand people would be diagnosed with this disease, and over 18 thousand of these people would die. While a cure for liver cancer is unlikely, the earlier a patient is diagnosed, the greater his chance for a prolonged and improved quality of life.
According to the National Cancer Institute, liver cancer is a rare diagnosis in the United States, as it is a more common disease affecting the citizens of Asia and Africa. Regardless of the geographical location, it has been found that liver cancer is diagnosed more in men than in women, most often by a ratio of two to one. Due to the high volume of blood flow and the number of functions that take place in the liver, it is one of the most common organs for another cancer to spread to. While it can strike anyone at any age, the average age of diagnosis is between 60 and 70 years old. The treatment used is dependent upon the stage of the cancer.
While there are several types of liver cancers, the two most frequently diagnosed are primary and secondary. Primary liver cancer can either begin in the liver cells, which is called hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), or in the bile ducts located in the liver, which is referred to as cholangiocarcinoma. Secondary liver cancer is known as metastatic. This type occurs when a person has another cancer, such as stomach, pancreatic or breast, and the cells travel through the blood stream or lymphatic system, settling into another organ. These cells then grow in that organ, like the liver. Secondary liver cancer is more frequently diagnosed than primary liver cancer.
Unless a person has a preexisting liver condition, such as cirrhosis, which would cause the symptoms of liver cancer to appear more quickly and be more intense, they may not realize the symptoms are an indicator of a serious medical condition. It is for this reason that many people are not diagnosed until the liver cancer is in the advanced stage. Some of the symptoms include feeling weak or tired, jaundice (yellowing of the skin), loss of appetite and vomiting (which could lead to anorexia), feeling bloated and a dull pain that begins in the upper abdomen, sometimes extending around to the back. This may happen as the tumor grows larger.
Before the doctor can devise a treatment plan, he must first determine what stage liver cancer the patient is in. There are five stages of cancer; however, they are grouped together into three treatment stages. The first, localized resectable, is used to describe a patient whose cancer is only in the liver, having not yet spread, and that can be removed completely by surgery. The second, localized and locally advanced unresectable, is used to describe a patient whose cancer is isolated to the liver, has not yet spread, but cannot be completely removed by surgery alone. The last is the advanced stage, and this is used to describe a patient whose liver cancer has spread through her body.
Treatment options for liver cancer has many variables, including the age and overall health of the patient, the size and location of the tumor or tumors and the stage of the cancer itself. In the earlier stages, surgery may be an option, along with chemotherapy and radiation. If the cancer is discovered during the early stages, it is possible for the patient to be cured; however, his cancer must not have spread, and he must be strong enough to undergo surgery. If a patient is in the advanced stage of the disease, the doctor may recommend that he participate in clinical trials, which are intended to improve the methods of treatment. Those in the advanced stages may also receive palliative therapy, which improves their quality of life through pain management. It is important to note that those suffering from secondary cancer will be treated for the original cancer that spread. This is because all cancers are named for the cells that cause them, so if secondary cancer is diagnosed in the liver but arose in the breast, the patient will be treated for breast cancer, as that is the cell growing in the liver.
People who are diagnosed when they are in the advanced stages of liver cancer are generally given 3 to 4 months to live. For those who undergo treatment, the average life expectancy is 6 to 18 months. About 30 percent of those who are diagnosed in the early stage and undergo surgery to remove the cancer are able to survive up to 5 years, and in rare cases, are cured. However, liver cancer is a general term when applying it to a diverse group of people. Each person is different, and although they may suffer from the same disease, they will not suffer the same way, nor will they respond to treatment the same way. Every case of liver cancer is unique, therefore, so are the survival rates.