Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a cancer that develops in cells in the liver. Hepatocytes are the primary functioning cells that make up most of the liver, and are responsible for proteins synthesis, bile production, metabolism and detoxification functions. Hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common type of liver cancer, and is the third leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Hepatocellular carcinoma occurs mostly in patients with chronic liver disease and cirrhosis due to either infectious viral hepatitis or chronic alcoholism. It affects more men than women. It is the most common cause of death in people with cirrhosis and can occur at any age, but is more likely to be diagnosed in people 50 years or older.
Signs and symptoms may not show up in early stages. However, HCC may cause one or more of the following:
- Abdominal pain and/or swelling
- Blood in stool
- Easy bruising or bleeding
- Enlarged abdomen
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Unusual color and texture in urine and bowel movements
- Unexplained weight loss
The causes of HCC are not exactly known, however some factors that have been identified that may increase a person’s risk for getting it include:
- Hepatitis B or hepatitis C: Hepatocellular carcinoma can begin years following a liver infection. Results from a blood test can tell a patient whether hepatitis B or hepatitis C exist in their blood stream.
- Cirrhosis: This disease happens when liver cells are destroyed and replaced by scar tissue. This can be caused hepatitis B or C infection, alcoholism, drug use, or extra iron in the liver.
- Heavy drinking: This can equate to years of consuming two or more alcoholic beverages a day. This behavior can increase the chances of hepatocellular cancer.
- Obesity and diabetes: Liver disease and higher risk of diabetes can lead to a greater risk of HCC.
- Iron storage disease: This leads to extra iron in the liver and other organs throughout the body.
- Aflatoxin: This substance is created by types of mold that are regularly found in improperly stored foods such as nuts, grains, corn, or peanuts. It can cause HCC. There is a high incidence of HCC in areas where aflatoxin-contaminated food is common, such as eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. However, there is no evidence of aflatoxin-related HCC cases in the United States.
If this cancer is caught early in a patient, it can sometimes be cured with surgery or transplant. In advanced cases, it may not be cured; however, treatment and support can help a patient live longer and more comfortably.
Treatment options for HCC may include one or more of the following:
- Ablation procedures
- Liver transplant
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted drug therapy