Liver, Bile Duct and Pancreas Tumor Program

About Liver Cancer

Primary Liver Tumors
Primary liver cancer is a tumor that originates in the liver. It is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the liver. Other names for this type of cancer are hepatocellular carcinoma or hepatoma (liver cells) and cholangiocarcinoma (bile ducts).

Primary liver cancer is not common in the United States, however, it ranks as the fourth most common cancer worldwide. These primary liver tumors arise much more often in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. However, because of Southern California's diverse culture, our team is designed to meet the needs of these patients.

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) occurs most often in patients with cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver that can result from any chronic liver disease, including alcohol abuse, viral hepatitis (hepatitis A, B and C), fatty liver disease, autoimmune and metabolic liver diseases.

HCC and cirrhosis can cause many complications including bleeding, fluid overload, malnutrition and encephalopathy. These issues will need to be managed and optimized prior to, and following, any treatment for HCC. This requires a multidisciplinary approach between the surgeons, oncologists, interventional radiologists and hepatologists.

The liver is one of the largest solid organs in the body and one of only two that can regenerate. It has two lobes and fills the upper-right side of the abdomen, mostly under the rib cage. The gallbladder is attached to the liver. The liver has many important functions, including:

  • Filtering and modifying harmful substances
  • Making bile to help digest fats from the foods we eat
  • Storing glycogen (sugar) which the body uses for energy
  • Making critical proteins to aid the body in normal functions, including the clotting of our blood

When the liver is affected by a disease, any one of these essential functions can be compromised.

While the exact cause of primary liver cancer (cancer beginning in the cells of the liver, not traveling to the liver) is unknown, major risk factors include:

  • Chronic hepatitis B and/or hepatitis C viral infection
  • Chronic alcohol abuse
  • Cirrhosis from any cause
  • Exposure to toxins
  • Anabolic steroid usage
  • Family history of both hepatitis and liver cancer
  • Age – In the United States, liver cancer occurs more often in people over age 60
  • Certain metabolic disorders such has hemochromatosis

Secondary (Metastatic) Liver Tumors
Secondary (metastatic) tumors begin as primary cancers in other organs, such as the colon, rectum, pancreas, stomach, lung, or breast and spread via the bloodstream to the liver. The liver is supplied by blood from all the organs in the body, particularly the intestines. Therefore, cancers affecting the gastrointestinal tract are those that most often spread to the liver.

Liver metastases may already be present at the time that a primary cancer is diagnosed in another part of the body. Or, they may arise months or even years after a person has been treated for a primary tumor. Blood tests and radiologic scans are used to identify liver metastases.

Usually, liver metastases do not cause symptoms. If symptoms are present, they may include:

  • Weight loss
  • Pain, usually in the right upper portion of the abdomen
  • Jaundice (yellow discoloration of the skin and/or eyes)