Oct 25, 2017 1:00 PM

doctor pointing to liver graphic

Updated October 2018

Liver cancer can be hard to find early. Signs of liver cancer may not show up until the disease has progressed and is harder to treat. It's important to know if you are at risk for liver cancer and be aware of signs of the disease.

Early detection is the key to having the best possible outcome with any ailment, including liver cancer, says Robin Kim, MD, a Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) researcher and a liver transplant surgeon at University of Utah Health.

What are Risk Factors for Liver Cancer?

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Certain risk factors make some people more likely to develop liver cancer. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors for liver cancer:

  • Hepatitis B or hepatitis C. Having both types of hepatitis raises the risk even more. The hepatitis B vaccine may help prevent liver cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone get this vaccine. It is usually given at birth and completed at 6 months. Unvaccinated adults should talk to their doctor about getting the vaccine.
  • Cirrhosis. This can be caused by hepatitis (especially hepatitis C) or by drinking large amounts of alcohol for many years.
  • Metabolic syndrome, a set of conditions that occur together, including extra fat around the abdomen, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, high levels of triglycerides, and low levels of high-density lipoproteins in the blood.
  • Liver injury that is long-lasting, especially if it leads to cirrhosis.
  • Hemochromatosis, a condition in which the body takes up and stores more iron than it needs. The extra iron is stored in the liver, heart, and pancreas.
  • Poisoning with aflatoxin, a fungus that can grow on foods such as grains and nuts that have not been stored properly.

Dr. Kim recommends that people who have liver disease work with a dedicated team of liver experts, like University of Utah Health's Liver Center. "Such a team includes not only cancer providers but also liver specialists, who together can guide the patient through caring for his or her liver even before cancer might appear," he says. Liver specialists can also recommend tests to look for liver cancer so it can be found as early as possible.

What are Signs of Liver Cancer?

Liver cancer can cause these symptoms:

  • A hard lump on the right side just below the rib cage
  • Discomfort in the upper abdomen on the right side
  • A swollen abdomen
  • Pain near the right shoulder blade or in the back
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite or feelings of fullness after eating a small meal
  • Pale, chalky bowel movements and dark urine

Other conditions that are not serious can also cause these conditions. It is always best to check with your doctor if you have any unusual body changes that last longer than two weeks.

Learn more about liver cancer.
For more information, live chat with a health educator or email cancerinfo@hci.utah.edu.

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