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Carcinocin Liver 30c

Liver cancer is characterized by the presence of malignant hepatic tumors -- tumors or growths on or in the liver (medical terms pertaining to the liver often start in hepato- or hepatic from the Greek word for liver, hēpar, stem hēpat-). They may be discovered on medical imaging (even for a different reason than the cancer itself), or may be present in patients as an abdominal mass, hepatomegaly, abdominal pain, jaundice, or some other liver dysfunction.

 

What are the symptoms of liver cancer?

 

The initial symptoms (the clinical presentations) of liver cancer are variable. In countries where liver cancer is very common, the cancer generally is discovered at a very advanced stage of disease for several reasons. For one thing, areas where there is a high frequency of liver cancer are generally developing countries where access to healthcare is limited. For another, screening examinations for patients at risk for developing liver cancer are not available in these areas. In addition, patients from these regions actually have more aggressive liver cancer disease. In other words, the tumor usually reaches an advanced stage and causes symptoms more rapidly. In contrast, patients in areas of low liver cancer frequency tend to have liver cancer tumors that progress more slowly and, therefore, remain without symptoms longer.

Abdominal pain is the most common symptom of liver cancer and usually signifies a very large tumor or widespread involvement of the liver. Additionally, unexplained weight loss or unexplained fevers are warning signs of liver cancer in patients with cirrhosis. These symptoms are less common in individuals with liver cancer in the U.S. because these patients are usually diagnosed at an earlier stage. However, whenever the overall health of a patient with cirrhosis deteriorates, every effort should be made to look for liver cancer.

A very common initial presentation of liver cancer in a patient with compensated cirrhosis (no complications of liver disease) is the sudden onset of a complication. For example, the sudden appearance of ascites (abdominal fluid and swelling), jaundice (yellow color of the skin), or muscle wasting without causative (precipitating) factors (for example, alcohol consumption) suggests the possibility of liver cancer. What's more, the cancer can invade and block the portal vein (a large vein that brings blood to the liver from the intestine and spleen). When this happens, the blood will travel paths of less resistance, such as through esophageal veins. This causes increased pressure in these veins, which results in dilated (widened) veins called esophageal varices. The patient then is at risk for hemorrhage from the rupture of the varices into the gastrointestinal tract. Rarely, the cancer itself can rupture and bleed into the abdominal cavity, resulting in bloody ascites.

On physical examination, an enlarged, sometimes tender, liver is the most common finding. Liver cancers are very vascular (containing many blood vessels) tumors. Thus, increased amounts of blood feed into the hepatic artery (artery to the liver) and cause turbulent blood flow in the artery. The turbulence results in a distinct sound in the liver (hepatic bruit) that can be heard with a stethoscope in about one quarter to one half of patients with liver cancer. Any sign of advanced liver disease (for example, ascites, jaundice, or muscle wasting) means a poor prognosis. Rarely, a patient with liver cancer can become suddenly jaundiced when the tumor erodes into the bile duct. The jaundice occurs in this situation because both sloughing of the tumor into the duct and bleeding that clots in the duct can block the duct.

In advanced liver cancer, the tumor can spread locally to neighboring tissues or, through the blood vessels, to elsewhere in the body (distant metastasis). Locally, liver cancer can invade the veins that drain the liver (hepatic veins). The tumor can then block these veins, which results in congestion of the liver. The congestion occurs because the blocked veins cannot drain the blood out of the liver. (Normally, the blood in the hepatic veins leaving the liver flows through the inferior vena cava, which is the largest vein that drains into the heart.) In African patients, the tumor frequently blocks the inferior vena cava. Blockage of either the hepatic veins or the inferior vena cava results in a very swollen liver and massive formation of ascites. In some patients, as previously mentioned, the tumor can invade the portal vein and lead to the rupture of esophageal varices.

Regarding the distant metastases, liver cancer frequently spreads to the lungs, presumably by way of the blood stream. Usually, patients do not have symptoms from the lung metastases, which are diagnosed by radiologic (x-ray) studies. Rarely, in very advanced cases, liver cancer can spread to the bone or brain

How is liver cancer diagnosed?

 

Blood tests

 

Liver cancer is not diagnosed by routine blood tests, including a standard panel of liver tests. This is why the diagnosis of liver cancer depends so much on the vigilance of the physician screening with a tumor marker (alpha-fetoprotein) in the blood and radiological imaging studies. Since most patients with liver cancer have associated liver disease (cirrhosis), their liver blood tests may not be normal to begin with. If these blood tests become abnormal or worsen due to liver cancer, this usually signifies extensive cancerous involvement of the liver. At that time, any medical or surgical treatment would be too late.

Sometimes, however, other abnormal blood tests can indicate the presence of liver cancer. Remember that each cell type in the body contains the full complement of genetic information. What differentiates one cell type from another is the particular set of genes that are turned on or off in that cell. When cells become cancerous, certain of the cell's genes that were turned off may become turned on. Thus, in liver cancer, the cancerous liver cells may take on the characteristics of other types of cells. For example, liver cancer cells sometimes can produce hormones that are ordinarily produced in other body systems. These hormones then can cause certain abnormal blood tests, such as a high red blood count (erythrocytosis), low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and high blood calcium (hypercalcemia).

Another abnormal blood test, high serum cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia), is seen in up to 10% of patients from Africa with liver cancer. The high cholesterol occurs because the liver cancer cells are not able to turn off (inhibit) their production of cholesterol. (Normal cells are able to turn off their production of cholesterol.)

There is no reliable or accurate screening blood test for liver cancer. The most widely used biochemical blood test is alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), which is a protein normally made by the immature liver cells in the fetus. At birth, infants have relatively high levels of AFP, which fall to normal adult levels by the first year of life. Also, pregnant women carrying babies with neural tube defects may have high levels of AFP. (A neural tube defect is an abnormal fetal brain or spinal cord that is caused by folic acid deficiency during pregnancy.)

In adults, high blood levels (over 500 nanograms/milliliter) of AFP are seen in only three situations:

  • Liver cancer
  • Germ cell tumors (cancer of the testes and ovaries)
  • Metastatic cancer in the liver (originating in other organs)

Several assays (tests) for measuring AFP are available. Generally, normal levels of AFP are below 10 ng/ml. Moderate levels of AFP (even almost up to 500 ng/ml) can be seen in patients with chronic hepatitis. Moreover, many patients with various types of acute and chronic liver diseases without documentable liver cancer can have mild or even moderate elevations of AFP.

The sensitivity of AFP for liver cancer is about 60%. In other words, an elevated AFP blood test is seen in about 60% of liver cancer patients. That leaves 40% of patients with liver cancer who have normal AFP levels. Therefore, a normal AFP does not exclude liver cancer. Also, as noted above, an abnormal AFP does not mean that a patient has liver cancer. It is important to note, however, that patients with cirrhosis and an abnormal AFP, despite having no documentable liver cancer, still are at very high risk of developing liver cancer. Thus, any patient with cirrhosis and an elevated AFP, particularly with steadily rising blood levels, will either most likely develop liver cancer or actually already have an undiscovered liver cancer.

An AFP greater than 500 ng/ml is very suggestive of liver cancer. In fact, the blood level of AFP loosely relates to (correlates with) the size of the liver cancer. Finally, in patients with liver cancer and abnormal AFP levels, the AFP may be used as a marker of response to treatment. For example, an elevated AFP is expected to fall to normal in a patient whose liver cancer is successfully removed surgically (resected).

There are a number of other liver cancer tumor markers that currently are research tools and not generally available. These include des-gamma-carboxyprothrombin (DCP), a variant of the gamma-glutamyltransferase enzymes, and variants of other enzymes (for example, alpha-L-fucosidase), which are produced by normal liver cells. (Enzymes are proteins that speed up biochemical reactions.) Potentially, these blood tests, used in conjunction with AFP, could be very helpful in diagnosing more cases of liver cancer than with AFP alone.

 

 
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