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Childhood liver cancer is a rare disease in which cancer cells are found in the tissues of a child’s liver. The liver is the largest organ in the body and it is found behind the ribs on the right side of the abdomen. The liver removes harmful material from the blood and also produces enzymes and bile that aid in the digestive system. The liver receives its blood supply from two vessels – most coming from the hepatic portal vein, and the rest from the hepatic artery. Cancer occurs as the result of abnormal cell growth within the liver.
Types of Childhood Liver Cancer
There are two types of childhood liver cancer:
Hepatoblastoma: more common in young children before age 3; may be caused by an abnormal gene.
Hepatocellular: found in children from birth to age19; may have some relation to hepatitis.
There are no strong indicators of what may cause childhood liver cancers. However, current research suggests the following:
There may be a link between families who carry a gene related to a certain type of colon cancer and children who develop hepatoblastoma.
Children infected with hepatitis B or C are at a higher risk of developing hepatocellular cancer.
In its earliest stage, liver cancer does not usually cause any symptoms. As the disease progresses, symptoms may include:
Pain in the upper right hand side of the abdomen, possibly extending to the back or shoulder
Swollen abdomen (bloating)
Loss of appetite
Weakness or fatigue
Nausea and vomiting
Yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)
These symptoms may be caused by cancer or by other types of medical problems. If your child is experiencing any of these symptoms, see his/her doctor.
Diagnosing Childhood Liver Cancer
If your child is experiencing any of these symptoms, his/her doctor will perform a physical exam, will review his/her medical history, and will probably prescribe various tests to find the cause of the symptoms. Tests may include a CT (or CAT) scan, a liver scan, and/or a biopsy.
Once a diagnosis of cancer has been confirmed, the doctor will prescribe further tests to determine the stage of the cancer in order to plan treatment.
Your child’s doctor will work with you and your child to determine the best plan of treatment. The plan will take into account the type and stage of the cancer, as well as your child’s age and general health. Treatment options may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a liver transplantation.