Did you know that liver cancer is the fourth most common cancer among men in Singapore? It affects about 24 in every 100,000 people per year. Generally, men are more likely to develop liver cancer as compared to women. Liver cancer typically only show symptoms at the later stage, and by the time the symptoms is obvious the disease may have progressed. Here is what you need to know.
What is liver cancer?
Liver cancer is a disease in which harmful cancer cells develop in the tissues of the liver. Primary liver cancer is a cancer which originates from the liver cells. 90-95% of the liver cancer patients belongs to this category. Primary liver cancer is typically caused when:
- The liver is damaged by birth defects or chronic infection from hepatitis B or C.
- Haemochromatosis [ A hereditary disease associated with too much iron in the liver]
- Liver cirrhosis
- Scarring and hardening of liver due to alcohol abuse
Secondary liver cancer is cancer that starts from other body organs and spreads to the liver. A common example is colorectal cancer spreading to the liver through bloodstream.
Who is at risk?
- The cancer tends to affect adults aged 40 and above.
- The three most common risk factor of developing primary liver cancer are chronic hepatitis B infection, chronic hepatitis C infection and high alcohol consumption. In particular, the risk of someone with chronic hepatitis B or C infection developing primary liver cancer is 100 times more than an uninfected person. This underscores the importance of keeping your hepatitis vaccinations up to date.
- Other less common risk factor include aflatoxin – found on mouldy peanuts, nuts, corn and grains.
- A family history of liver cancer poses additional risk.
What are the symptoms?
- Abdominal pain, the most common symptom which indicate a large tumour or widespread involvement of liver
- Unexplained weight loss or fevers are warning signs of liver cancer in patients with cirrhosis
- The sudden appearance of abdominal fluid and swelling and jaundice (yellow color of the skin), may suggest the possibility of liver cancer.
- The liver shown to be enlarged and sometime tender upon physical examination
What are the treatment options?
If a liver tumour is suspected, your doctor will do a series of diagnostic test and evaluate if a resection surgery which remove a section of the organ is necessary. Times when resection surgery is not possible, your doctor will explore another alternative such as chemotherapy, radiofrequency ablation, or transarterial chemoembolization. Liver transplant may be suggested if a patient is in the end stage of liver cancer, with tumours that are less than 5cm in size and showing signs of liver failure.