Liver cancer may be less well-known than other cancer types, but it is the fifth most common cancer in the world. And despite progress in other fields, liver cancer is one of the few cancers whose rate in the United States is continuing to rise. Liver cancer, whose medical term is hepatocellular carcinoma, is tumor that starts in the liver and can spread to other organs if left untreated.
The most common cause of liver cancer is cirrhosis – or scar tissue that forms in the liver as a result of long-term damage. Cirrhosis can occur as from chronic infection with hepatitis B or hepatitis C, and also from excess alcohol use. People with these risk factors have a much higher chance of developing liver cancer. Liver cancer does not cause symptoms, such as pain or weight loss, until very advanced stages. As a result, the only way to pick up liver cancer in the early stages is to go for screening tests.
Similar to the way women get mammograms to check for breast cancer, certain individuals should get routine liver ultrasounds to check for liver cancer. In general, anyone with liver cirrhosis should have a liver ultrasound every 6 months to look for signs of cancer. In addition, certain people with hepatitis B can develop liver cancer, even before cirrhosis occurs. In particular, immigrants from China and from sub-Saharan Africa should be aware of this risk and should speak with their doctor about testing.
If a liver tumor is seen on ultrasound, a CT or MRI can confirm whether this is liver cancer or not. If caught early, liver cancer is curable with surgery to remove the tumor. Depending on the patient, other treatment options such as liver transplantation are also used. In more advanced stages of liver cancer, treatments such as embolization, radiation, and chemotherapy can be used to control tumor growth.
The Mount Sinai Medical Center is one of the top liver cancer treatment centers in the country. We have a large team of specialists including surgeons, interventional radiologists, hepatologists, and medical oncologists who provide state-of-the-art multidisciplinary care for patients with all stages of liver cancer. Click here to learn more about liver cancer treatment and surgery, and click here for liver cancer FAQs.
Umut Sarpel, MD
Assistant Professor of Surgery and Surgical Oncology