Liver Cancer Frequently Asked Questions

Who gets liver cancer?
According to the National Cancer Institute, primary liver and bile duct cancers are the fifth most common cause of cancer death in men and the ninth most common cause of cancer death in women. More than 90 percent of all cases occur in men and women age 45 or older. Liver cancer is closely associated with hepatitis virus infections, especially hepatitis B. Unfortunately, the incidence and mortality rates for these cancers have increased in all races and both sexes in the past two decades.

What are some known risk factors for developing liver cancer?
Risk factors for liver cancer, also called hepatocellular carcinoma, cited by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) include: chronic liver infection (hepatitis), cirrhosis, aflatoxin (a toxin produced by a fungus or mold), gender, a family history of liver cancer, and age. The NCI also cites a recent study that found that the risk of developing bile duct cancer is higher in people with both gallstones and cholecystitis (swelling and irritation of the gallbladder).

What are the signs and symptoms of liver cancer?
While symptoms may vary depending on how far the cancer has spread, some common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, weight loss, pain in the abdominal area, loss of appetite, weakness, fever and jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes).

Can liver cancer be cured?
Unfortunately many patients are diagnosed with liver cancer at advanced stages when symptoms may first appear. However some of these patients are candidates for a liver transplant, which offers the best chance for a cure.

Is this a fast-growing cancer?
Your physician will be better able to answer this question once a pathologist has looked at a sample of your tissue under a microscope. Typically, a higher grade of cancer means that the cancer cells are fast growing.

How could I have cancer? I didn't have any symptoms.
Most early cancers rarely show symptoms. The benefit of screening for many types of cancer, including breast, prostate and colon, is that cancer can be caught early when treatment is most effective.

What are the goals of treatment?
The goals of treatment are to eradicate cancer and to help you achieve an excellent outcome and quality of life following your treatment. Virginia Mason specialists are dedicating efforts to helping patients live well beyond a diagnosis of cancer. All Virginia Mason cancer survivors are encouraged to meet with specialists to talk about quality of life and "what's next" after their treatment for cancer. It is important to remember that more than 11 million Americans today are cancer survivors.

How many doctors will be involved in my care?
Depending on the stage and grade of your tumor, you may be treated by one or several specialists as you undergo cancer treatment. For example, patients with liver cancer may be seen by a hepatologist, gastroenterologist, surgeon, radiologist, radiation oncologist and medical oncologist.

What will happen if I decide not to undergo treatment?
The decision to undergo treatment resides completely with you and your family. Many cancers, when caught early, are highly treatable, allowing patients to live years and even decades beyond their initial diagnosis. Patients with advanced cancer may be eligible for enrollment in a clinical trial (study) that offers investigational new treatment not available to most patients. A decision about whether or not to have treatment should be made after discussions with your family, your doctor, and after carefully weighing all the options available to you.

Should my family members be tested for cancer?
Some cancers — breast, prostate, pancreatic and colon, for example — can have a hereditary component that may make it advisable for family members to be tested. Virginia Mason offers a hereditary cancer risk consultation to help patients and their family members who are thinking about having genetic testing performed.

What do I need to do after I've had all of my treatment?
Virginia Mason specialists are dedicating efforts to helping patients live well beyond a diagnosis of cancer. All Virginia Mason cancer survivors are encouraged to meet with specialists to talk about quality of life and "what's next?" after their cancer treatment.

Will my cancer come back?
This is one of the most common questions asked by cancer survivors. In some cases cancer can recur or a new cancer can form years or even decades after treatment. One of the goals of Virginia Mason is to help patients come to terms with their fears about cancer recurrence so that they can lead productive, fulfilling lives. Another goal is to ensure that survivors realize the importance of and are scheduled for periodic check-ups after their last treatment for cancer.