Liver Cancer Patient Information Fact Sheet

What are the symptoms of liver cancer?
Early on in their growth liver cancers often produce no symptoms. Secondary cancers tend to be found only after the original cancer elsewhere in the body is diagnosed. A liver cancer may produce jaundice (a yellow coloring of the skin and eyes), often with a darkening of urine and a pale color to the stool (bowel motion). This is because the growth of the cancer blocks the drainage of bile from the liver and the bile’s yellow pigment cannot get into the bowel to color the stool. Because of the blocked drainage, the bile’s yellow pigment is subsequently eliminated through the kidneys, hence the dark urine. Other symptoms that may occur are liver pain (especially if the cancer is stretching the fibrous coating that surrounds the liver) and weight loss. Very occasionally a liver cancer causes vomiting. This is because the cancer grows out from the liver and pushes on the stomach, blocking the passage of food and liquids.

What tests confirm a diagnosis of liver cancer?
Apart from hepatomas, there are no specific blood tests for the detection of liver cancer. However, a cancer in the liver might be suspected when an abnormality is seen in LFT’s, or liver function tests. These blood tests merely detect that there is something wrong and an abnormality can show up for many other reasons besides cancer. In the case of hepatomas, a doctor may find an unusually high concentration of a substance produced by the hepatoma, called alpha-fetoprotein. However, this blood test is only an indication of the presence of a hepatoma and will not detect other cancers.

The best method of diagnosing a cancer is to detect it visually. This can be done using ultrasound, a CT scan X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Sometimes it is necessary to have pictures of the blood supply to the cancer, in which case an angiogram is performed. This entails putting X-ray dye into the blood vessels that supply the liver via a fine tube inserted into an artery, normally at the top of the leg.

If liver cancer is detected, specialists need to know what type of cell is forming the cancer. This means that a sample of the cancer is required. This involves introducing a needle into the cancer and then taking a small sample (biopsy), which is examined under a microscope.