The liver is the largest internal organ. Without it, we simply would not survive. It is responsible for breaking down, metabolizing, and storing nutrients so that they can be used to build and repair tissue in the body. It also makes clotting factors that prevent you from bleeding out when you get a cut. The liver secretes bile into the intestines so that we can properly absorb nutrients, and it also breaks down alcohol, drugs, and toxic waste that is then excreted through urine and stools.
Liver cancer, or primary liver cancer, is cancer that starts in the liver. Since the main cells that make up the liver are called hepatocytes, liver cancer is also called hepatic cancer.
Signs and Symptoms of Liver Cancer
Unfortunately, signs and symptoms of liver cancer don’t usually show up until the cancer is at an advanced stage. Occasionally, they may show up sooner. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea, vomiting
- Right-sided abdominal or shoulder blade pain
- Swelling in the abdomen
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
- Itching of the eyes and skin
- Enlarged liver, felt as a mass under the ribs on the right side
- Enlarged spleen, felt as a mass under the ribs on the left side
- Enlarged veins on the abdomen that can be seen through the skin
Sometimes, liver tumors begin to make hormones that act on other parts of the body. According to the American Cancer Society, these hormones may cause the following symptoms: (1)
- High blood calcium (hypercalcemia). May result in nausea, confusion, constipation, weakness, and muscle problems
- Low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia). May result in fatigue or fainting
- Breast enlargement (gynecomastia). May also cause shrinkage of the testicles in men
- High counts of red blood cells (erythrocytosis). May cause someone to look red or flushed
- High cholesterol levels
Risk Factors of Liver Cancer
Liver cancer is considered an uncommon but serious cancer. It usually results from years of alcohol abuse, chronic infection, or birth defects, and it is often only discovered at a later stage.
Common risk factors for liver cancer include:
- Chronic infection with HBV or HCV. Hepatitis B virus and hepatitis C virus increase your chances of developing liver cancer.
- Alcohol abuse. People who consume more alcohol than they should over a number of years are at a greater risk of getting liver cancer.
- Cirrhosis. Scarring of the tissue in the liver increases your chance of getting hepatic cancer.
- Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. This disease is a condition in which people who consume little or no alcohol develop a fatty liver. It is usually a result of being overweight or obese. People with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease may develop cirrhosis, which puts them at risk for liver cancer.
- Inherited metabolic diseases. Certain diseases can cause a buildup of minerals or toxins in the liver, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
- Inherited liver diseases. Inherited diseases that increase the risk of liver cancer include hemochromatosis and Wilson’s disease.
- Type 2 Diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is linked to liver cancer. Often, people with type 2 diabetes are overweight, which can lead to liver problems.
- Aflatoxins. Exposure to cancer-causing substances created by a fungus that grows on crops such as corn, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, and rice can increase your risk of developing liver cancer. This is more common in parts of Africa and Asia, where there are fewer safety regulations.
Diagnosing Liver Cancer
If you or your doctor suspect that you may have liver cancer, physical examinations, imaging tests, and lab tests will help determine a diagnosis.
During a physical examination, you will be asked whether you have been having gastrointestinal problems. Your doctor will check for yellow eyes and yellow skin and will pay close attention to your abdomen for any swelling, lumps, or sensitivity.
Imaging tests allow experts to look for suspicious areas, to diagnose liver cancer, perform a biopsy, understand if or how much the cancer has spread, and determine the best course of treatment. Imaging tests that may be used include X-ray, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), angiogram, and bone scan.
Blood tests can also help diagnose liver cancer by determining how well the liver is working as well as testing the function of any other organs that may be affected by the cancer. Blood tests that may be done include liver functioning tests (LFTs), blood clotting tests, tests for viral hepatitis, kidney function tests, complete blood count (CBC), and others.
Staging Liver Cancer
There are four stages of liver cancer. Once a diagnosis is made, your doctor will determine the stage of cancer based on imaging tests. The stages include:
- Stage I: The tumor is two centimeters (cm) or smaller and it has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or other organs.
- Stage II: There is either a single tumor larger than two centimeters or multiple tumors smaller than five centimeters. The cancer has not spread to nearby organs.
- Stage III: There are multiple large tumors or one tumor, and the cancer has spread to main blood vessels. It may have reached the gallbladder.
- Stage IV: The cancer has metastasized (spread to nearby or distant organs).
Liver Cancer Treatment
Your doctor will determine a treatment plan based on the stage of liver cancer. If it is at an early stage, you will most likely have surgery to remove tumors, as this is the only chance for complete recovery.
Some treatment options include:
- Partial Hepatectomy. If the tumor or tumors are only in a small area of the liver and have not yet spread, that part of the liver may be removed. The surgeon may decide only once surgery has begun whether there will be enough healthy liver tissue left to move forward with the procedure.
- Liver Transplant. Not every liver cancer patient is a candidate for liver transplant. Those who are cannot have a tumor larger than five centimeters and need to be otherwise healthy individuals.
- Ablative Therapy. Ablation is a treatment that destroys tumors without removing them. Patients for which surgery is not an option may undergo ablative therapy. There are many different types of ablation, including radiofrequency ablation, ethanol ablation, microwave thermotherapy, and cryosurgery.
- Embolization Therapy. This procedure involves the injection of substances that block blood flow to the cancer cells. It can slow down tumor growth.
- Radiation Therapy. During radiation therapy, high-energy rays are directed at tumors to kill cancer cells. Side effects include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and low blood counts.
- Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. In most cases, chemotherapy has not been effective in treating or slowing down liver cancer. Because of this and because of the side effects (hair loss, weight loss, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, high chance of infection, and more), chemotherapy is not often used to treat hepatic cancer.
Natural Ways to Prevent and Treat Liver Cancer
As with any chronic disease or cancer, the best thing to do is to implement preventative measures from the start. You can lower your risk of liver cancer the natural way with the following tips.
1. Eat nutrient-rich whole foods.
Certain foods have been proven to increase the risk of cancer, while other foods contain cancer-fighting compounds.
Inflammatory foods are those that increase oxidative stress in the body and lead to chronic inflammatory disease and cancer long term. Avoid processed foods, refined sugars and carbohydrates, fried foods, hydrogenated oils, artificial flavoring and coloring, and foods that have been blackened, burned, or charred.
Instead, stick with organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, lean protein, and fatty fish. These foods are not only devoid of unhealthy substances and toxins, but they’re also loaded with essential nutrients for optimal functioning of all systems in the body—and when the body is working well, the risk of cancer goes way down. (2)
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2. Try a ketogenic diet.
Studies show that a ketogenic diet—a diet rich in healthy fats and low in carbohydrates—slows tumor growth and can prevent and reverse cancer. In addition, the diet can improve the quality of life for those with advanced-stage cancer. (3)(4)
The ketogenic diet allows the body to turn fat into fuel, taking the burden off mitochondria in the cells. This process reduces the risk of mutation in the cells, which is the start of cancer cell formation.
3. Add fermented foods to your diet.
If you want to improve overall health and reduce your risk of cancer, send a little love to your gut—the part of your body that houses 70 percent of your immune system.
Fermented foods contain probiotics, or good gut bacteria, that are essential for combating bad bacteria and boosting immune system health. Those with metabolic conditions and cancer are usually found to have a poor balance of gut microbiota.
Add fermented foods to your diet, which include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, natto, and tempeh.
4. Eat turmeric.
Turmeric contains a powerful anti-inflammatory and anticancer compound called curcumin. An overwhelming number of research trials have proven time and time again that curcumin shrinks tumors, induces cancer cell death, and prevents cancer cell growth. (5)(6)(7)
Some other incredible cancer-fighting foods include ginger, garlic, cayenne pepper, green tea, berries, and cruciferous vegetables.
5. Give enzyme therapy a try.
In 1902, Dr. John Beard published his first article on a cancer treatment therapy he called pancreatic enzyme therapy.
Enzymes are important because they stop the division of cancer cells and destroy the protective coating around those cells. They also play a major role in the removal of toxins from the body. Because we are so often exposed to environmental toxins and the pH level in our bodies is frequently off balance, the enzymes in our bodies are unable to perform well.
We must supplement and replenish the enzymes in our bodies, and we also have to make a conscious choice to eat more enzyme-containing foods.
Enzyme therapy is very effective in preventing and treating cancer, as well as in reversing symptoms in those receiving chemotherapy.
6. Ensure that you’re getting enough vitamin D.
Studies show that vitamin D deficiency and liver cancer are closely linked. (8)(9)(10)(11)
Low levels of vitamin D may actually promote liver tumor growth, so make sure that you’re getting a good dose of the sunshine vitamin each day. Fifteen minutes of exposure to the sun each day should do the trick.
7. Limit your alcohol intake.
It’s no secret that excessive alcohol intake can lead directly to liver cancer. Limit your intake to no more than one glass of wine per day or a few drinks a week.
You may want to be more cautious if you have a family history of alcohol abuse or cancer.
8. Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight.
As mentioned above, type 2 diabetes is linked to liver cancer. People with type 2 diabetes are often overweight or obese, and their condition has followed years of poor dietary choices and lack of exercise.
Keep fit, and you’ll reduce your risk of developing many different chronic diseases and cancers.
Liver cancer is a rare but serious disease. People at risk of developing liver cancer are often those with preexisting conditions related to liver health, such as HBV, HCV, cirrhosis, alcohol abuse, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and the like.
You can significantly lower your risk of developing liver cancer through lifestyle changes. A ketogenic diet has been proven to fight cancer, as well as certain foods such as turmeric, fermented foods, and whole, unprocessed foods.
Healthy choices throughout your life provide the best, most natural solution for cancer prevention.