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What is Hepatocellular Carcinoma?

By Madeleine A.
Updated May 17, 2024
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Hepatocellular carcinoma commonly is called liver cancer. This type of malignancy typically is found more often in men than in women. Hepatocellular carcinoma generally occurs in individuals between 50 and 60 years old. This cancer is more common in Asia and parts of Africa than it is in Europe or North and South America. Hepatocellular carcinoma is a primary cancer and differs from metastatic liver cancer, which originates in another part of the body such as the colon or breast, and then spreads to the liver.

Liver cancer usually is caused by liver scarring or cirrhosis. Cirrhosis typically is caused by alcohol abuse, hepatitis, or autoimmune disease. People with hepatitis B or C may be at risk for hepatocellular carcinoma, even though they do not have cirrhosis. Hepatitis typically is transmitted by sharing contaminated needles and through the exchange of bodily fluids.

Symptoms of hepatocellular carcinoma may include pain or tenderness in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen, easy bleeding or bruising, enlarged or swollen abdomen, and jaundice. Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and eyes related to an overproduction of bile. Other symptoms of hepatocellular liver carcinoma often include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and weight loss.

Diagnostic tests that may reveal hepatocellular carcinoma include a liver biopsy, x-rays or scans of the liver, and liver-function blood tests. Physical examination of the liver cancer patient often will show a tender, enlarged liver. After a definitive diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma is made, many high-risk patients may receive regular ultrasounds and blood tests to determine if the tumors are progressing.

Treatment for liver cancer could include a liver transplant. If hepatocellular carcinoma is diagnosed early, a transplant may be successful, however very few people are diagnosed early. Radiation and chemotherapy generally are not effective but may be utilized to decrease the size of large tumors so they are easier to surgically remove.

Typically, the prognosis for hepatocelluar carcinoma is poor because most liver cancers cannot be surgically removed. If the tumor cannot be completely excised, the disease usually is fatal within three to six months. Survival rates however vary widely, and some patients may survive longer. Complications of hepatocellular carcinoma may include gastrointestinal bleeding, metastasis, and liver failure.

Prevention of hepatocellular carcinoma generally includes avoiding heavy drinking of alcoholic beverages. It also usually includes prevention and treatment of viral hepatitis. Getting the hepatitis B vaccination in early childhood may decrease the risk of cancer of the liver in adulthood.

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