Liver Cirrhosis can lead to, but is not the same thing as, liver cancer. Keep reading to learn the difference.
Cirrhosis is a name given to liver disease. Even though it can, in some cases, result in liver cancer, it is not the same disease. This article will discuss liver cancer as a separate entity.
Also known as hepatocellular carinoma, it arises in and affects the cells of the liver. The liver itself consists of different forms of cells – yet, eighty percent of the cells are “liver cells” (versus fat storing cells, blood vessels, bile ducts, etc.). This means that nearly one hundred percent of liver cancer cases result from carcinoma of the liver cells. However, when people discuss liver cancer, they often refer to cancer which has metastasized (spread) to the liver from different organs, like the pancreas, stomach, lung or breast. When someone refers to this sort of liver cancer, it is actually “metastatic liver disease”, given that it originated elsewhere.
Primary liver cancer (which originates in the liver) is less common.
Symptoms Of Liver Cancer
Initial signs of the disease can vary. Some of the earliest signs are so subtle that they may mistakenly be identified as worsening liver function, or advancing cirrhosis. Surprisingly, abdominal pain isn’t common; its presence in the absence of other disorders indicates a tumor of considerable size, or involvement over a large area of the liver. In patients with cirrhosis and liver cancer, inexplicable fevers or weight gain should be taken as warning signs.
In patients with cirrhosis that aren’t experiencing complications of liver disease, the onset of liver cancer can result in previously non-existent complications. As an example, the rapid onset of abdominal swelling and fluid, yellowing of the skin (jaundice) or the wasting of muscle without any obvious causes, may indicate the presence of liver cancer. Cancer can also cause a blockage in the portal vein (which delivers blood to the liver, from the spleen and intestine). The increased pressure results in the blood taking “the path of least resistance”, such as through veins in the esophagus, resulting in dilated esophageal veins; these veins are then at risk of rupturing. In rare cases, the liver cancer may rupture and bleed directly into the abdominal cavity.
During a physical exam, the most commonly found clue is that the liver in tender and enlarged. Since liver cancer is “vascular” – which means that they contain plentiful blood vessels – greater and greater quantities of blood flow into the hepatic artery (which is an artery that goes to the liver); this causes turbulence within the artery, causing a recognizable sound in the liver. This sound can be heard using a stethoscope in twenty five to fifty percent of liver cancer patients. The prognosis of liver cancer worsens in the case of advanced symptoms, such as esophageal bleeding, jaundice, or the wasting of muscles. If a tumor undergoes erosion into the bile duct, jaundice may occur rapidly.
In advanced cases, primary liver cancer can cause “secondary” cancer in nearby tissues or farther away by spreading via blood vessels. It can also invade the hepatic veins (which drain the liver). If these veins become blocked, the liver can become congested. In the case of “distant metastases” – when the liver cancer spreads to a distant location via the patient’s bloodstream, a common area for it to end up in is the lungs, though it may not cause symptoms there. Only in rare cases of very advanced liver cancer may it spread to the brain or bones, though complications from such a spread are rare as the patients to whom this happens may not live long enough to develop them.