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Overview

Liver cancer forms in the cells and tissues of the liver, which is the largest internal organ, weighing almost three pounds. Cancer that spreads to the liver from other parts of the body is different — in that case it is liver cancer metastasis.

Liver malignancies are in a group known as gastrointestinal (GI) cancers, and Wilmot offers the largest team of GI specialists in the Finger Lakes region. Wilmot also offers the most advanced treatments and technology — including upstate New York’s only liver transplant program.

Liver cancer types

  • Hepatocelllular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common type in adults. It can appear as a single tumor, or as many small nodules spread throughout the liver. The latter pattern occurs commonly in the U.S. in people who also have a damaged liver from chronic liver disease.
  • Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer), which accounts for 10 percent to 20 percent of cancers that start in the liver.
  • Angiosarcoma and hemangiosarcoma are rare. These cancers develop in the cells lining the blood vessels of the liver and sometimes results from exposure to toxins such as vinyl chloride or arsenic.
  • Hepatoblastoma is a very rare type that develops in young children.

Liver cancer facts

About 35,000 new cases are diagnosed annually in the U.S., which makes it relatively rare. However, the number of cases among Americans has been gradually rising for several decades. Liver cancer is more common in Africa and Southeast Asia. Five-year survival rates are low (15-30 percent for localized cancer) because patients often have other chronic liver diseases or other serious medical problems. 

Causes and risk factors

Men are at higher risk than women. The lifetime risk for men is about a 1 in 81 chance, and in women it's 1 in 196. Aging is a strong risk factor: Approximately 95 percent of people who get liver cancer are at least 45 years old, with the average age being 63.

Other risk factors include:

  • Exposure to vinyl chloride, a chemical used to manufacture plastics, and thorium dioxide, a chemical that was used in the past to administer some x-rays.
  • Long-term exposure to aflatoxins, a cancer-causing fungus that can contaminate peanuts, wheat, soybeans, corn and rice. This is a greater problem in tropical climates; developed countries such as the U.S. and Europe regulate aflatoxins through food testing.
  • Rare, inherited metabolic diseases, such as excess iron buildup in the liver.
  • Type 2 diabetes, especially in patients who have other risk factors.
  • Obesity
  • Heavy drinking (at least six standard drinks a day).
  • Cirrhosis of the liver caused by chronic HCV or HBV infections, alcohol abuse, fatty liver disease associated with obesity, or some autoimmune diseases.
  • Chronic infection with the hepatitis B virus (HBV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV).
  • Race and ethnicity. Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans/Alaska Natives, and Hispanics and Latinos have a higher risk than whites.
  • Anabolic steroids used to boost muscle mass.
  • Infection with parasites that cause liver damage. The parasites are not in the U.S. but infection can occur in Asia, Africa, and South America.
  • Tobacco use

Prevention

There are a couple of important ways to prevent liver cancer. Receiving the hepatitis B vaccine to protect against HBV lowers the risk. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. However, both of these viruses can be avoided by not sharing needles (such as those used in drug abuse) and by using condoms during sex.

Drinking alcohol only in moderation (1 drink a day for women and 2 for men), quitting smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight are also prevention strategies. If you have an inherited condition that causes cirrhosis of the liver, monitoring and treating the condition is important.