Liver cancer begins in the liver, a large organ in the upper right abdomen between the diaphragm and stomach. Not all cancers that affect the liver are liver cancer, however. Those that spread to the liver from other organs are called metastatic cancers.
All types of liver cancers are hard to cure. Primary cancers that start in the liver are rarely detected early, when treatment is most effective. Secondary or metastatic cancers are hard to treat because they have already spread to other organs.
Patients with early-stage cancers have the best chance of survival. Unfortunately, most liver cancers are advanced by the time they’re detected. A complex network of arteries, veins and bile ducts makes liver surgery difficult. Most treatments focus on making patients comfortable and helping them live longer.
Surgical Cancer Treatments
When cancer is detected early, doctors can surgically remove part of the liver. Surgical treatments are only used when tumors are small and liver function is good. They also depend on where cancer is located in the liver.
Some cancer patients are candidates for a liver transplant. During transplant surgery, a diseased liver is replaced with a healthy donor liver. Only a small percentage of patients with early-stage cancer have this treatment option.
Radiotherapy and Chemotherapy
Radiation therapy has limitations for liver cancer because the liver has a low tolerance for radiation. When this treatment is used for liver cancer, its primary role is to shrink a tumor, relieve liver pain and reduce other cancer symptoms.
Chemotherapy treatments inject drugs into the liver to reduce tumors to a size that makes surgery possible. After some surgical procedures, chemotherapy is combined with radiotherapy to prevent cancer from returning. However, this type of combination therapy rarely has benefits for patients with liver cancer.
Other Cancer Treatments
Some types of liver cancer respond to procedures that freeze or heat cancer cells to destroy them. Cryotherapy, or cryoablation, uses liquid nitrogen to freeze cancer cells. Radio frequency ablation (RFA) uses heat from electric currents to destroy tumors. Doctors use ultrasound or computerized tomography (CT) scans to guide them through the procedures.
Alcohol injection is another treatment for liver cancer. During the procedure, doctors inject pure alcohol into the tumor. This can occur through the skin or during a surgical operation. The alcohol causes the cancer cells to die.
Alternative Medicine Therapies
Alternative treatments cannot cure liver cancers, but they may help people with advanced cancers manage their pain. Many integrative cancer therapies combine medical treatments with acupressure, acupuncture, massage, music therapy and deep breathing techniques.
Cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, increases the risk of liver cancer. People can reduce this risk by limiting their alcohol consumption and using caution with household chemicals. Maintaining a healthy weight is also important and depends on a healthy diet and exercise program.