Liver cancer is one of those formidable enemies that starts when malignant cells take root in the liver’s tissues. Primary liver cancer originates within one of the body’s largest organs, strategically occupying the upper right side of the abdomen beneath the rib cage. This is a different form of cancer from those that originate elsewhere and journey to the liver.
The liver, a multitasking organ, serves various functions crucial to our biological health. It produces bile to aid in the digestion of dietary fats, stores glycogen as an energy reserve, and diligently filters harmful substances from the blood, flushing them out of the body through stools and urine.
Adult primary liver cancer primarily manifests in two forms: hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and cholangiocarcinoma, with the former reigning as the leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. Liver disease doesn’t discriminate by age, affecting both adults and children.
Symptoms of Liver Cancer
The diagnosis of liver cancer depends on identifying several subtle signs and symptoms ranging from a hard lump beneath the rib cage to jaundice, easy bruising, and unexplained weight loss. Always consult a medical professional for accurate assessment and guidance. It’s vital to acknowledge the different types of liver cancer: hepatocellular carcinoma, originating from hepatocytes, the main liver cell type; cholangiocarcinoma, initiating in the bile duct lining; and the rare angiosarcoma, sprouting from blood vessels. Secondary cancer in the liver, sourced from malignancies originating elsewhere, adds another layer of complexity.
Did you know that during this year alone, more than 3000 individuals grappled with a liver cancer diagnosis, their average age being 69 years old?
According to the Cancer Council of Australia, “Liver cancer symptoms are more likely to appear as the cancer grows or becomes advanced. Symptoms may include:
- weakness and tiredness
- pain in the abdomen
- swelling of the abdomen due to a build-up of fluid (ascites)
- pain in the right shoulder
- appetite loss and feeling sick
- weight loss
- yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- pale bowel motions
Causes of Liver Cancer
The causes of liver cancer are numerous: hepatitis B or C viruses are major instigators, causing long-term infections and elevating the risk of primary liver cancer. Other contributing factors include fatty liver disease, genetic disorders, type 2 diabetes, hepatitis B or C (reiterated for emphasis), alcohol consumption, obesity, smoking, and exposure to specific chemicals.
A particularly stark reality emerges regarding alcohol consumption. Even at low levels, the risk of liver cancer escalates, with heavier, long-term drinking acting as a common precursor to cirrhosis—the buildup of scar tissue in the liver. Cirrhosis, in turn, amplifies the probability of transitioning to liver cancer.
In the United Kingdom, 7% of liver cancer cases stem from alcohol consumption, translating to at least 400 cases annually, predominantly affecting men. Liver cancer is a complex disease and it’s wise to be aware of the risk factors, types of liver cancers, and consequences. Awareness about alcohol consumption remains a vital factor for those who have weaker livers or a history of other causes in their family trees.
Causes of Liver Cancer include:
- fatty liver disease or genetic disorders including haemochromatosis, or alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency
- type 2 diabetes
- hepatitis B or C
- alcohol consumption
- smoking tobacco
- exposure to certain chemicals.
10 Reasons Why Your Drinking Could Cause Liver Cancer
Drinking habits can become silent architects of a formidable foe: liver cancer.
- Hepatitis B and C:
Chronic hepatitis, especially when caused by hepatitis B or C, can persist for years and potentially lead to serious complications such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. Early detection, vaccination, and adopting preventive measures are crucial in managing and preventing hepatitis.
- Hepatitis A (HAV): Typically spreads through contaminated food and water or close contact with an infected person.
- Hepatitis B (HBV): Primarily through contact with blood, body fluids, or from an infected mother to her newborn during childbirth.
- Hepatitis C (HCV): Mainly through blood contact, often via sharing of needles among drug users or through unsafe medical practices.
- Cirrhosis: a late stage of scarring (fibrosis) of the liver caused by many forms of liver diseases and conditions, such as hepatitis and chronic alcoholism. Each time your liver is injured, it tries to repair itself. In the process, scar tissue forms. As the cirrhosis progresses, more and more scar tissue forms, making it difficult for the liver to function. Causes:
- Chronic Alcoholism: Excessive and prolonged alcohol consumption is a common cause of cirrhosis.
- Hepatitis B and C: Chronic infections with hepatitis B or C viruses can lead to cirrhosis.
- Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD): Accumulation of fat in the liver, often associated with obesity and metabolic disorders, can progress to cirrhosis.
- Chronic Bile Duct Diseases: Conditions affecting the bile ducts, such as primary biliary cirrhosis or primary sclerosing cholangitis, can lead to cirrhosis.
- Genetic Diseases: Certain genetic disorders, like hemochromatosis, Wilson’s disease, and glycogen storage diseases, can result in cirrhosis.
- Obesity: Obesity is linked to an increased risk of developing liver cancer through several mechanisms, primarily involving the impact of excess body fat on the liver. Here are some reasons why obesity can contribute to the development of liver cancer:
- Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD): a condition where excess fat accumulates in the liver cells. NAFLD can progress to more severe forms, such as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), characterized by inflammation and liver cell damage.
- Inflammation and Oxidative Stress: Adipose tissue (fat cells) releases inflammatory substances and hormones known as adipokines. In obesity, there is an overproduction of these inflammatory molecules. Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress in the liver contribute to the development of liver cancer.
- Smoking: Smoking and drinking are double addictions that compound to increase the risks of liver cancer.
- Genetic Predispositions: Some people carry a genetic blueprint that makes them more susceptible to the wicked effects of alcohol. Genetic disorders like haemochromatosis or alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency, coupled with drinking, can open the door to liver cancer.
- Type 2 Diabetes: Elevated blood sugar levels, coupled with the metabolic dance induced by alcohol, set the stage for a potential showdown with liver cancer.
- Chemical Exposures: Exposure to these toxic elements, combined with the consumption of alcohol, heightens the risk, adding complex layers to the liver cancer narrative.
- Moderation Matters: It’s not just about the act of drinking; it’s about the quantity. The more you drink, the higher the stakes. Even low levels of alcohol can set the stage for the liver’s slow descent into chaos, paving the way for cancer to take centre stage.
- Age as a Factor: The clock ticks, and with each passing year, the risk escalates. Liver cancer, like a seasoned performer, often chooses the stage of those over 70. Age becomes a factor, a silent collaborator in this unfolding drama.
- Gender Disparities: Men, it seems, bear a heavier burden, with a significant portion of alcohol-induced liver cancer cases unfolding within their ranks.
Liver Cancer is a terrible disease. If you are a drinker, it may be time to assess how much you are drinking and whether you are at risk of liver cancer, or other cancers and diseases. Alcohol can kill. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the USA, any level of drinking is dangerous, even moderate:
- Alcohol is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality, with harms related to both acute and chronic effects of alcohol contributing to about 5 million emergency department visits and more than 140,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.
- There is no perfectly safe level of alcohol consumption, as current research points to health risks including cancer and cardiovascular risks even at low levels of consumption, regardless of beverage type.
- Alcohol is a carcinogen associated with cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, colon, rectum, liver, and female breast, with breast cancer risk rising with less than one drink a day.
- The whole body is impacted by alcohol use—not just the liver, but also the brain, gut, pancreas, lungs, cardiovascular system, immune system, and more—and may explain, for example, challenges in managing hypertension, atrial fibrillation, diabetes, and recurrent lung infections.
The future is in YOUR hands. Listen to Kathryn Elliot talk about breast cancer in this podcast.