It is safe to say that we are all familiar with our liver, with it being the second largest organ of the body. The liver plays an important role by filtering waste products from the blood, and breaking down foreign substances, such as alcohol and drugs. It is also responsible for producing bile to help dissolve fats so that it can be easily digested.
There is however much less awareness of liver cancer. Tragically, when a person is diagnosed with liver cancer, they only have a 1 in 5 chance of surviving beyond five years.
Worldwide, liver cancer is the third-highest cause of cancer related deaths. In Australia it is less common, but more than 2,800 people are still diagnosed each year, and the incidence of liver cancer in Australia has increased by an alarming 378% since 1982.
Unfortunately, like most GI cancers, liver cancer is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage. Survival outcomes are often influenced by lifestyle and medical factors such as your health and age, in addition to any pre-existing liver problems, such as cirrhosis, liver disease or infection with hepatitis.
There are two main types of primary liver cancer; both named after the location where the cancer begins: Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common type of liver cancer and starts in the main cell type of the liver called hepatocytes; the second is Cholangiocarcinoma, which begins in the cells of the bile duct and is also known as bile-duct cancer.
What are the risk factors?
The biggest factor that increases risk of liver cancer is infection by the Hepatitis B or C virus, which leads to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver). Other factors that cause liver damage, such as family history of liver disease, obesity, diabetes, and heavy drinking of alcohol, can lead to primary liver cancer.
Are there signs and symptoms?
Although liver cancer is hard to detect at an early stage, symptoms may include:
- Unexplained loss of weight and appetite
- Unexplained nausea
- Pain in the upper right side of the abdomen
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
- Pale bowel motions or loose stools
- Severe pain or swelling of the abdomen
If you experience any of these symptoms or have concerns, please contact your general practitioner (GP).
Improving survival for liver cancer patients
Rare and less common cancers, like liver cancer, sadly have low survival rates and suffer from a lack of awareness, and a desperate need for more research funding to improve treatments.
We are committed to changing the odds for liver cancer patients, which is why conducting new clinical trials in this neglected cancer is one of our nine research priorities. That is why we brought together experts in liver cancer at our Idea Generation Workshop in hepatocellular carcinoma.
The Workshop took place in August 2021, and has already seen several ideas for new research and clinical trial progress through our research development pathways, creating new trials for these patients who all too often have very few options.
GI cancers, like liver cancer, will not go away by themselves. Our researchers are working hard to change these odds for people who are diagnosed, to find more effective treatments and profoundly impact the lives of patients now and in the future.
You can help too by making October the month you learn about liver cancer, and make headway for vital liver cancer research to help prevent more tragic deaths.