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Liver cancer is a type of tumour that originally develops in the liver. It is a very common cancer worldwide and usually tends to appear in people with chronic liver disease. It requires an early diagnosis to maintain the possibility of applying a curative treatment. As such, regular ultrasound check-ups are vitally important in patients at risk of developing liver cancer.
Liver cancer is a heterogeneous group of tumours that originate in the liver. The most common kind of tumour is hepatocellular carcinoma – a disease in which liver cells (known as hepatocytes) become abnormal, experience uncontrolled growth and consequently form a tumour. This abnormal, uncontrolled growth is due to an accumulation of mutations in the liver cells’ DNA (the organic compound that contains each living organism’s genetic information).
While hepatocellular carcinoma is the most prevalent primary tumour, it is not the only one, as the liver comprises other types of cell besides hepatocytes. When the abnormal cells are located in intrahepatic bile ducts, they give rise to tumours called cholangiocarcinomas.
It is important to differentiate between primary liver tumours and those which spread to the liver from other parts of the body, which are called secondary tumours or liver metastases.
The liver is the body’s largest internal organ and is located in the right side of the abdomen. An adult’s liver weighs around 1.5 kg. It is divided into four sections (lobes), wherein the right lobe is much larger than the other three (the left, the quadrate and the caudate lobes), has a soft consistency and a dark brown-reddish colour.
The liver can still function even when up to 90% of its mass has been damaged. But its total destruction can lead to organ failure which can develop very rapidly and is extremely serious. A damaged liver can regenerate itself in just 3 weeks and return to normal function in around 4 months.
The liver receives blood from the hepatic artery, which supplies oxygenated blood, and the portal vein, which supplies blood loaded with nutrients from the stomach and intestines. Blood exits the liver through various veins called suprahepatic veins.
The liver is involved in approximately 1,500 bodily functions, but its primary roles are:
To produce and secrete bile, a greenish-yellow liquid that helps digest fat. Bile is stored in the gallbladder and passes through the common bile duct to the duodenum when digesting food.
To synthesise (produce) many essential substances required by the body such as albumin, cholesterol, prothrombin, and so on.
To metabolise carbohydrates to maintain a correct blood glucose level.
To detoxify blood by removing drugs and other substances (alcohol, toxins from the intestines, etc.).
To filter out and eliminate bacteria from the blood.
How many people are affected by liver cancer?
There are over 750,000 new cases of hepatocellular carcinoma diagnosed worldwide each year, which makes it the sixth most predominant type of tumour in the world. In Spain, there are approximately 6,000 new cases reported every year and it is much more typical in men.
Contemporary studies have shown that the incidence of hepatocellular carcinomas has increased in recent years and it is currently one of the foremost causes of death in patients with liver cirrhosis and represents the main indication for a liver transplant in Spain.
Cholangiocarcinoma is less frequent and its true incidence is unknown, but we know it corresponds to at least 10% of primary liver cancers.
Liver cancer explained in first person
Appointment of Maria Reig, Liver specialist
In most cases, although of course not all, treatment prevents this disease from becoming a chronic illness.
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Substantiated information by:
Alejandro Forner González
Jordi Bruix Tudo
María Reig Monzón
Neus Llarch Alfonso
Published: 13 May 2020
Updated: 13 May 2020
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