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Liver Cancer

Primary liver cancer (also called "hepatocellular carcinoma") is a rare cancer that begins in the adult liver.  Most cancer found in the liver is "secondary," meaning that it actually began in another part of the body such as the colon, stomach, breast, lung or pancreas, and then metastasized to the liver.  Secondary liver cancer is also called "metastatic liver cancer." Metastatic liver cancer is extrfemely difficult to eliminate completely.

Liver cancer is a "silent" disease that often goes undetected until it reaches an advanced stage.  Early-stage liver cancer often has no noticeable symptoms.  People with liver cancer may feel pain in the right, upper abdomen or back.  They also may develop jaundice (yellowing of eyes and skin caused by excess bilirubin in the bloodstream), and experience nausea, weight loss, bloating or swelling of the abdomen, itching, easy bruising, bleeding of the gums, nosebleeds, mental confusion, and other symptoms. 

How is it diagnosed?
How is it treated?
How does Advocate Christ Medical Center make a difference?
Frequenstly Asked Questions 

How is it diagnosed?

The first step is a physical exam by your physician, including blood tests to measure alphafetoprotein, which can indicate a problem with the liver.  Other diagnostic procedures include:

  • CT (computed tomography) scan-a diagnostic imaging procedure that combines multiple X-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images ("slices") of the liver and other organs, bones, muscle and other tissue.
  • Ultrasound-uses sound waves to create an image of the liver and other organs.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-a diagnostic procedure that combines radiofrequencies, very powerful magnet and a computer to create detailed images of body tissues, including abnormal ares within the liver.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (endosonography)-an advanced procedure that combines endoscopy and ultrasound to create more detailed images of digestive tract structures. This more detailed information is useful in determining cancer staging for lesions in the liver-which is critical information for treatment planning. Endoscopic ultrasound can find tumors less than 1 cm (about 0.4 inch), which can't be seen in a CT scan.
  • Tissue biopsy-a small sample of tissue is taken and analyzed to confirm whether it is malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous). A biopsy may be done by a fine or larger core needle inserted through the abdomen, or with a laparascope, which requires a small incision in the abdomen (less than 1 inch).  Detailed pathology testing can reveal important details about the cancer's molecular and cellular characteristics, and is a key step in staging a cancer (determining how advanced the cancer is).
  • Angiography-which shows the location of blood vessels, so doctors can see if blood vessels near the liver are close to any tumors.  This information is helpful when planning liver surgery, to help the surgeon avoid incisions in areas of the liver that are vulnerable to heavy bleeding.

How is it treated?

Surgery is the most common treatment for primary liver cancer.  Liver resection ("hepatectomy") removes the diseased portion of the liver.  Because of the liver's ability to regenerate (grow back), our experienced surgeons can remove relatively large sections of this organ.  Surgeons also may resect (remove) diseased portions of the liver for individuals with secondary liver cancer, but may not be able to remove all cancerous portions because the tumors are too large or too numerous.

Liver cancer that can be removed with surgery is called "resectable." Patients with cirrhosis (a chronic disease of the liver) or extensive tumors may have "unresectable" disease that cannot be treated with surgery.

Other treatment options for liver cancer may be used in conjunction with surgery, or as alternatives to surgery.

  • Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) uses a special probe that contains tiny electrodes to kill cancer cells with high heat.
  • Percutaneous ethanol injection is a method that involves injecting ethanol alcohol directly into the liver tumor, to kill the cancer cells.  The physician may use ultrasound imaging to guide the needle into the tumor.
  • Cryoablation or cryosurgery uses cold temperatures to freeze and kill cancer cells.  Cryoablation also may be used to remove liver tissue that is scarred from cirrhosis.
  • Chemotherapy-using anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells.  Chemotherapy drugs are typically administered by infusion multiple days, over several weeks at a time.  This usually can be done on an outpatient basis.
  • Chemotherapy using hepatic arterial infusion-Anti-cancer drugs are administered into the blood stream through a catheter (thin tube) inserted into the hepatic artery.  The drug travels into the blood vessels that supply the liver and, therefore, tumors in the liver.
  • Chemoembolization-involves injecting anti-cancer drugs into an artery while also using tiny particles to block the flow of blood through the hepatic artery.  Without blood flow, the anti-cancer drug remains inside the liver for a longer time, for improved effectiveness.
  • Radiation therapy-uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells.  Radiation therapy may be delivered from outside the body using a linear accelerator, or from tiny seeds or rods implanted inside the body close to the tumor site ("brachytherapy")

How does Advocate Christ Medical Center make a difference?

The experienced cancer team at Advocate Christ Medical Center offers a full range of options for treating liver cancer.  For individuals facing metastatic liver cancer, these options can improve quality of life and may extend survival. Our physicians offer innovative options for surgical removal of liver tumors.  In some cases, our experienced team can surgically treat liver cancer that was considered inoperable ("unresectable") at other hospitals.

Patients at Advocated Christ Medical Center benefit from the collaboration of many specialists who have expertise in a broad range of areas yet all dedicated to providing the best solutions to diagnose and treat cancers of the digestive system.  Gastroenterologists, hepatologists, GI surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, oncology nurses and others work collaboratively to consider all perspectives and potentialities before recommending a treatment plan tailored to each individual's situation.

We provide a complete array of radiation therapy modalities, including many advanced technologies primarily found in university settings. In addition to standard external beam radiation, the Medical Center offers: intra-operative radiation therapy, intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), 3-D conformal treatment planning (combining CT and radiation therapy), and brachytherapy.

With the most advanced technologies and experienced cancer specialists, Advocate Christ Medical Center offers the resources to address complex cancer cases.  Christ Medical Center draws patients who seek new options after previously receiving care at larger academic hospitals.

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