Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Tests For Liver Cancer

Submitted on March 27, 2012

Liver cancer, also known as hepatocellular carcinoma, refers to cancer that develops in the liver. Very often, the symptoms of liver cancer are mistaken as signs of worsening of liver function and cirrhosis.

Tests Recommended

Liver cancer tests are necessary for a correct diagnosis. Medical history and physical examination help doctors to start their diagnosis before further testing. Doctors even recommend liver cancer imaging tests like an ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Medical Tests like angiography, bone scan, and laparoscopy are also commonly used to diagnose liver cancer. Tissue samples from the area are taken and studied in order to confirm the presence of liver cancer. Needle biopsy, laparoscopy biopsy and surgical biopsy are the three different techniques used under this method. Some of the other lab and blood tests for liver cancer include alpha-fetoprotein blood (AFP) test, liver function tests (LFTs), blood clotting tests, tests for viral hepatitis, kidney function tests, complete blood count (CBC) and electrolytes and blood chemistry tests.


Although the exact liver cancer causes are unknown, some of the risk factors that increase the possibility of a person developing this cancer are as under:

  • Advanced age: - Liver cancer is generally rare before the age of 50 and therefore older individuals are more at risk of developing this cancer. Studies have also shown that the male gender has higher chances of developing this cancer as compared to the female gender.
  • Alcohol use: - People who consume alcohol regularly have a higher chance of getting liver cancer in the end, especially after they stop drinking.
  • Cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver: - People suffering from different types of cirrhosis are at an increased risk of liver cancer.
  • Conditions that cause excess iron accumulation in the blood: - Individuals suffering from conditions like hemochromatosis have a higher likelihood of developing liver cancer. A combination of hemochromatosis and cirrhosis increases the risk even further.
  • Diabetes: - People suffering from problems like diabetes and obesity also have a higher possibility of suffering from liver damage and cancer.
  • Exposure to a mold toxin known as aflatoxin: - This is a potent chemical responsible for the development of liver cancer and forms in foods like nuts, soybeans, corn, wheat, and peanuts that are stored in a hot environment.
  • Hepatitis B or C viral infections can also cause liver cancer in many cases.
  • Metabolic disorders like Wilson's disease also play a role in the development of liver cancer.


Some of the common liver cancer symptoms are as follows:

  • Abdominal pain especially in the right side generally indicates that the tumor is quite big or has spread too much in the liver.
  • Dark urine is one of the symptoms of liver cancer that is caused by an inflammation in liver cells.
  • Easy bleeding or bruising occurs when the diseased liver fails to produce adequate blood clotting factors.
  • A tender and enlarged liver is one of the main signs of primary liver cancer.
  • People suffering from liver cancer usually experience fatigue that does not go away even with rest. Symptoms like nausea and vomiting are also common.
  • Unexplained fevers are a warning sign of liver cancer especially in people suffering from cirrhosis.
  • When a person experiences generalized muscle weakness and reduced muscle mass without any causative factors such as excessive alcohol consumption, it may indicate liver cancer.
  • Profuse night sweats usually occurs in the latter stages of the cancer with or without accompanying fever and jaundice.
  • Pale stool and unusual discoloration of feces may be an indicator of liver disease or cancer. This could result either from lack of bile production or blockages in the bile duct.
  • Swelling and fluid collection in the abdomen (ascites), especially in the region below the lower right ribs, is another sign of liver cancer. If the swelling is severe, it may even pressurize the diaphragm and cause breathing difficulties.
  • Unexplained weight loss is generally the result of a poor appetite, both of which are common symptoms of liver cancer and liver disease. Very often patients experience severe vomiting, which could also lead to weight loss.
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice) is one of the major symptoms of liver cancer that indicates the liver is not functioning properly.


Liver cancer treatments like liver transplant surgery are done when the liver is completely diseased and needs replacement. Doctors can increase the effectiveness of some cancer treatments by freezing cancer cells and then killing them with drugs. Heating cancer cells is another way of killing malignant cells in the liver. Another treatment option is injecting alcohol into the tumor to block the blood flow to the cancer. The alcohol dehydrates the tumor cells and kills the tumor. Radiation therapy and targeted drug therapy are also commonly used treatment options.