Primary liver cancer begins in the cells of the liver itself. Although many cancers are declining in the United States, new cases of primary liver cancer are increasing.
In the United States, cancer affecting the liver is more commonly metastatic cancer, which occurs when tumors from other parts of the body spread (metastasize) to the liver. Cancers that commonly spread to the liver include colon, lung and breast cancers. These cancers aren't called liver cancer. Instead, they are named after the organ in which the cancer began — such as metastatic colon cancer to describe cancer that begins in the colon and spreads to the liver. These metastatic cancers are treated based on where the cancer began, rather than being treated as primary liver cancers.
Primary liver cancer is rarely discovered early and often doesn't respond to current treatments — thus, the prognosis is often poor. Even when treatments fail to provide much improvement in the liver cancer itself, pain and other signs and symptoms caused by liver cancer can be aggressively treated to improve quality of life. But the most important news about primary liver cancer is that you can greatly reduce your risk by protecting yourself from hepatitis infection and cirrhosis, the leading causes of the disease.
Most people don't have signs and symptoms in the early stages of liver cancer, which means the disease may not be detected until it's quite advanced. When symptoms do appear, they may include some or all of the following:
- Loss of appetite and weight
- Abdominal pain, especially in the upper right part of your abdomen, that may extend into your back and shoulder
- Nausea and vomiting
- General weakness and fatigue
- An enlarged liver
- Abdominal swelling (ascites)
- A yellow discoloration of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)