Liver cancer is the 18th most common cancer in the UK with around 4,700 new cases diagnosed each year.
Debashis Sarker, consultant medical oncologist at London Bridge Hospital, answered some key questions around the disease.
What different types of liver cancer are there?
There are two main types of liver cancer. Hepatocellular cancer (HCC) is the most common type of liver cancer, accounting for approximately two-thirds of cases, and originates from the main cells within the liver (hepatocytes) that are responsible for production of key proteins, making bile and cholesterol and breaking down toxins.
HCC usually occurs in patients with underlying long term liver damage leading to liver cirrhosis. Cholangiocarcinoma is the other main type of liver cancer and arises from the bile ducts within the liver that drain bile from the liver to the small bowel.
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Source: Cancer Research UK
What are the main symptoms of the disease? Why are there generally very few symptoms?
The symptoms can be quite variable and sometimes non-specific but may include jaundice, abdominal pain, nausea, weight loss, itching and fever.
Some patients have very few symptoms and are diagnosed incidentally when they are being investigated for other abdominal complaints such as urine infection or gallstones.
Does liver cancer affect more men or women? What is the most at-risk age group?
On the whole, liver cancer is more common in men than women except in younger age groups. In the UK the incidence of liver cancer is strongly related to age and an average of 70% of cases are diagnosed in men and women aged 65 years and over.
How is liver cancer usually treated?
Treatment depends on the type of liver cancer, the extent of any underlying liver damage and how far the cancer has spread.
For HCC, treatment options include liver transplantation or surgery for patients with early cancer. Other localised therapies for HCC include heating the tumour using radio waves (radio frequency ablation) or injecting chemotherapy directly into the liver and blocking off the blood supply to the tumour (chemo-embolisation).
For patients with more advanced cancer drug therapy with sorafenib is often used, but HCC is often resistant to other commonly used chemotherapy drugs.
For cholangiocarcinoma, surgery is the main treatment in patients with localised disease. In more advanced cases or where the cancer has spread, chemotherapy is often used.