Liver cancer is not among the most common cancers in the United States but it claims about 30,000 American lives annually. Over 40,000 new cases of liver cancer are diagnosed every year in he United States. It occurs more frequently in men. While most people associate liver cancer with viruses and excessive alcohol consumption, it can occur without any of these risk factors.
How To Spot Liver Cancer
While certain specific signs and symptoms may be indicative of liver cancer, a diagnosis can only be confirmed after the relevant investigations. This may include imaging techniques like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a liver biopsy with microscopic examination of the tissue sample. However, it is important to note that many of these liver-related symptoms occur with a host of different non-cancerous liver diseases.
Liver cancer should therefore be a consideration in high risk groups. As previously mentioned, a history of excessive alcohol consumption and certain types of chronic viral hepatitis (HBV and HCV) are major risk factors of liver cancer. Similarly cirrhosis due to any cause, inherited liver disease like Wilson’s disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, diabetes and exposure to certain toxins can increase the risk of liver cancer.
Therefore liver cancer should be considered in high risk groups. Regular screening may be recommended in some cases. However, when the possible signs and symptoms of liver cancer arise in high risk individuals then immediate investigations for liver cancer should be conducted to confirm or exclude liver cancer as a cause. It is also important to note that liver cancer can arise in a person who does not have a history of any of these risk factor.
Pain on the Right Side
Pain may not be an early sign of liver cancer but it eventually arises. The pain is typically felt in the right upper quadrant of the abdomen. This is where most of the liver is located. In addition, liver-related pain may also be experienced near the right shoulder. The nature of the pain can vary from a dull ache to a sharp, stabbing sensation.
However, it is important to note that pain in this region should not be considered as a sign of liver cancer on its own. Various other liver conditions can also cause pain in the right upper region of the abdomen. In addition, there are numerous organs surrounding the liver that may also be responsible for the liver pain.
Read more on liver pain.
Abnormal Stool and Urine Color
The liver produces bile through which it discards byproducts of metabolism and various toxins and wastes. The bile is stored in the gallbladder and then passed out into the small intestine. It is the partial breakdown of bile in the intestines that causes the typical brown color of stool as well as the yellow hue of urine.
Therefore in liver diseases like liver cancer there may be an abnormality in the stool and urine color. The stool may appear pale or even whitish in color due to the lack of bilirubin which is passed out in bile. The kidneys may compensate to remove the bilirubin in the body and the urine may therefore appear darker in color.
Yellowing of the Skin and Eyes
Another sign of liver disease and not only of liver cancer is jaundice. This is an abnormal yellow discoloration of the skin and may also be apparent in the whites of the eyes (sclera) as well as the inner lining of the mouth. It may or may not be accompanied by itching of the skin throughout the body.
Jaundice occurs when the liver cannot remove bilirubin from the bloodstream. This excess bilirubin then deposits in the tissues which is evident as the abnormal yellow discoloration. In addition, this build up of bilirubin can deposit in the brain with serious conseqences and it can also cause organ damage throughout the body.
Lumps and Swelling
It is sometimes possible to perceive the a lump in the liver. This is usually palpable in the right upper quadrant (RUQ) of the abdomen, just below the right rib cage. The liver may also be enlarged at times which is known as hepatomegaly but this is seen in many liver conditions.
Swelling of the abdomen may also be present. This abdominal distension is not solely due to the enlarged liver. Instead when the liver function is affected, as is the case in liver cancer, then there may be fluid accumulation in the abdomen. This is known as ascites but may not be be evident in the early stages of liver cancer.
Loss of Appetite and Indigestion
Loss of appetite is common in most cancers, especially cancers affecting the digestive system. With the liver being responsible for the processing and storage of nutrients, liver problems can impact on appetite. There may also be nausea and vomiting present in liver cancer.
Sometimes the symptoms are not as clearly evident and instead there are reports of indigestion (upset stomach). Apart from nausea and a loss of appetite, indigestion may also present with symptoms like bloating. This is a sensation of fullness after a few bites of a meal or even without eating a meal.
Unintentional Weight Loss
Weight loss which is not intentional is another common sign of cancer. This is not specific for liver cancer but should be considered along with other more specific symptoms like jaundice and right side abdominal pain. The weight loss may be related to the loss of appetite but can still occur even without a significant reduction in food intake. It is also important to note that weight loss frequently occurs as a side effect of radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Read more on signs of liver problems.
Fatigue is another common symptom of most cancers. It is extreme tiredness that does not correlate with the level of physical or mental activity. Some people may awaken fatigued and it can persist or worsen throughout the day. While this morning fatigue could be related to sleep quality, the unexplained fatigue can occur even when a person has rested sufficiently. It may alsy be accompanied by weakness.