May 1, 2024
May 1, 2024

How to Detect Liver Cancer Early and Take Proactive Measures

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How to Detect Liver Cancer Early and Take Proactive Measures

Your liver is a remarkable organ that can withstand a great deal of damage and even regenerate and repair itself. However, viral hepatitis and cirrhosis irreparably injure the liver, and liver cancer usually occurs in people with irreparable damage. This complicates treatment and makes liver cancer a formidable enemy with a poor prognosis. But what happens if you can detect liver cancer in its earliest stages when treatment options have a better chance of success? 

Here, we’ll explore how to detect liver cancer early, explain the warning signs of a damaged liver, and help you understand the early signs of liver cancer and potential prevention tips.

Understanding Your Liver and Normal Liver Function

The liver is the body's second largest organ. It typically weighs about three pounds and is responsible for vital tasks related to metabolism, nutrition, immunity, and digestion. Your liver is an essential organ, meaning you cannot live without one. Some specific liver functions include the following:

  • Removal of toxins: Blood leaves the stomach and passes through the liver and removes harmful substances and byproducts
  • Produces proteins: The liver makes albumin, cholesterol, blood plasma, and other proteins
  • Produces bile: Bile is a liquid that helps break down fats and carries waste away from the stomach during digestion and is crucial for proper gallbladder function
  • Regulates metabolism: The liver regulates your body’s metabolism
  • Convert glucose: The liver converts excess glucose into glycogen that can be stored and converted to energy when needed
  • Regulates amino acids: The liver regulates amino acids, the building blocks of protein
  • Stores vitamins, fat, and cholesterol: The liver stores these substances
  • Process hemoglobin: The liver processes hemoglobin, a blood component, for its iron content

What Are the 4 Early Warning Signs of a Damaged Liver?

How to detect liver cancer early: healthy and an unhealthy face of a man

There are many signs of liver damage that affect nearly every aspect of your body’s function. Some of the earliest warning signs and liver cancer symptoms include the following.

1. Loss of Appetite

When the liver becomes damaged, it struggles to detoxify the body. The resulting accumulation of toxins can interfere with appetite. Depending on the specific type of liver disease, there are also other reasons for loss of appetite. 

For example, alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD) may cause unwanted weight loss due to a combination of factors, including poor palatability of prescribed diets, increased inflammatory cytokines, and more appetite regulators.

2. Abdominal Swelling (Ascites)

Ascites is the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen's peritoneum, the space that houses organs like the liver. This fluid collection commonly occurs in advanced liver disease due to a combination of reduced protein production by the liver and increased pressure in the blood vessels around the liver (portal hypertension). 

This condition causes visible swelling and can lead to discomfort and increased abdominal girth. A medical procedure called a paracentesis can help relieve this problem by periodically draining the fluid.

3. Yellowing and Other Skin Changes

Jaundice occurs when the liver fails to adequately process bilirubin — a byproduct of red blood cell disposal. Bilirubin is what gives bile its distinctive yellowish-green color. Other skin changes associated with liver disease are spider veins, also called spider angiomas. A spider angioma resembles a spider with a central red spot with reddish web-like lines extending from it. 

Pale, bruised, and itchy skin is also common with liver disease. These changes are due to the liver’s reduced ability to produce blood clotting factors and proteins needed for maintaining healthy skin and blood vessels. 

4. Fatigue

In the context of liver damage, fatigue or extreme tiredness is often persistent. Rest doesn't relieve fatigue, which significantly impacts quality of life. The precise mechanism is not entirely understood, but it’s most likely linked to the body’s impaired ability to metabolize energy sources and clear toxins. 

Additionally, since liver damage can lead to anemia — a condition where blood cells don’t function properly — it may also contribute to feelings of tiredness and exhaustion.

What Causes Liver Damage and Liver Cancer?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common lifestyle risk factors and medical conditions for developing liver damage and eventually leading to liver cancer include:

  • Obesity
  • Hepatitis B or C virus infection
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Cirrhosis
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Diabetes
  • Hemochromatosis 

How Common Is Liver Cancer, and What Are the Survival Rates? 

When learning how to detect liver cancer early, it helps to grasp liver cancer diagnosis, cancer staging, and survival rates. The National Cancer Institute estimated in 2024 that in the United States, there will be around 41,630 new cases of primary liver cancer and intrahepatic bile duct cancer — with hepatocellular carcinoma being the most common type.

Men are more than twice as likely to develop liver cancer. The reason isn’t entirely understood, but the liver is a sexually dimorphic organ in that it metabolizes drugs, hormones, and other substances differently in men and women. Some research indicates that estrogen, which is predominant in females, may be a protective factor for developing liver cancer.

By looking at the survival rates of liver cancer, you can learn, on average, how many people with the same types and stages (extent of the cancer progression) will still be alive after a time — usually five years after diagnosis. Survival rates are estimates that can help you understand the likelihood of treatment success at different stages. They are not exact and don’t represent the best-case scenario. 

The five-year survival statistics are based on the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program or SEER database, which tracks different types of cancer. Instead of labeling cancer stages by a number, the SEER database categorizes cancer by how far from the original tumor location it has spread:

  • Localized is the earliest stage of cancer before it has spread to other parts of the body.
  • Regional is when cancer has spread to nearby areas, including lymph nodes. 
  • Distant means the cancer has spread to distant organs like the lungs, brain, or bones. 

According to the SEER database, the five-year survival rate is a percentage. It’s the portion of the total number of liver cancer patients who will be alive in five years.

  • Localized: 37%
  • Regional: 14%
  • Distant: 4%

Importantly, though, liver cancer patients who have had a liver transplant or removal of the cancerous part of the liver have a five-year survival rate of around 60-70%. Outcomes are also better for patients with no underlying cirrhosis or other serious health problems. 

Are There Any Early Warning Signs of Liver Cancer?

Early warning signs of liver cancer are similar to liver disease. Since liver damage usually precedes liver cancer, there are no distinct symptoms of liver cancer. However, it’s worth understanding and recognizing the common symptoms of liver disease. A sudden worsening of a previously stable chronic liver condition might also suggest the development of liver cancer.

Given the subtle onset of symptoms, regular monitoring and screening become vital, especially for those at increased risk due to factors like a history of liver disease, long-term alcohol use, or a family history of liver cancer. 

Your healthcare provider may recommend routine liver cancer screening imaging tests, such as the following tests: 

  • X-rays
  • CT scan (computed tomography)
  • Ultrasounds or liver MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans
  • Blood tests that check for specific biomarkers, like alpha-fetoprotein, or AFP levels, which can be elevated in liver cancer
  • Liver function tests that screen for liver disease as part of a proactive surveillance program to catch liver cancer at its earliest and most treatable early stages

Liver Cancer Prevention: Proactive Lifestyle and Healthcare Tips

In addition to knowing how to detect liver cancer early, it’s highly beneficial to live a proactive lifestyle and make changes now for overall well-being. But even if you already have risk factors for liver cancer, such as viral hepatitis, you can still make lifestyle and healthcare choices that can help prevent the development of liver cancer.

Vaccinate for Hepatitis: Getting vaccinated against hepatitis B can significantly reduce your risk of getting liver cancer as this type of viral liver inflammation and infection is a major cause of liver cancer worldwide. 

Manage and Treat Chronic Hepatitis Infections: Regular medical management and treatment of chronic hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections can lower the risk of liver cirrhosis (scarring) and liver cancer. Antiviral medications can help control hepatitis, decreasing the likelihood of severe liver damage.

Limit Alcohol Use: Research has unveiled more about the dangers of alcohol consumption. Alcohol is a known carcinogen, meaning that it’s known to cause cancer. In fact, alcohol use is linked to several types of cancer, including melanoma skin cancer, liver cancer, and prostate and pancreatic cancers.

Prevent Obesity: Being overweight can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), the buildup of fat in the liver's cells that can lead to liver cancer if left untreated. NAFLD is one of the most common causes of liver disease in the United States.

Choose a Healthy Diet: Eat a diet rich in “cancer-fighting foods” like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins to help maintain liver health. Avoiding high-calorie meals, saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, and sugars can prevent the development of fatty liver disease.

Avoid Toxic Exposure: Toxins produced by mold and those caused by industrial chemicals like vinyl chloride and arsenic can increase liver cancer risk. Reducing exposure to these substances by following safety guidelines can help protect the liver.

Have Regular Medical Check-Ups: Regular health screenings and check-ups, especially for those with risk factors for liver diseases, can facilitate early detection and treatment of liver cancer.

Use Medications Wisely: Some medications can cause liver damage if taken incorrectly. Always use prescription and over-the-counter drugs as directed and check with a healthcare provider before taking any new medication, particularly if you have existing liver conditions.

Know Your Risk Factors Early

How to detect liver cancer early: doctor putting a band-aid on her patient's arm

By learning how to detect liver cancer early, you can improve your chances of recognizing the warning signs and symptoms of liver disease and liver cancer. Mitigating the risk factors associated with liver cancer through proactive measures can help you take significant steps toward safeguarding your liver health and overall well-being.

One of the most important proactive steps you can take is knowing your risk factors for getting all types of cancer. Ezra offers an innovative risk factor quiz designed to calculate your personal risk level based on various factors. By simply inputting relevant information, you can gain valuable insights into your susceptibility to liver cancer, empowering you to make better lifestyle and healthcare choices. 

Another way to stay ahead of the health curve is to get an Ezra Full Body Scan, an imaging tool that screens for cancer in up to 13 organs including the liver. This MRI screening test is a non-invasive way to find potential issues before symptoms arise.