Symptoms of Liver Cancer
Cancer of the liver can move slowly and go undetected for quite a while. After all, your liver is such a regenerative and resilient organ, it can continue to function just enough to keep you going even when there is serious damage and disease at play. This is why being aware of symptoms of liver cancer is important.
Secondary liver cancer is more prevalent than primary liver cancer; the term refers to cancer that originates somewhere else in the body and moves to the liver (metastasizes), where it continues to grow. Once liver cancer symptoms begin to materialize, they normally indicate a later stage cancer, but there is a chance to catch the disease early — and hopefully slow or stop the progression – if you spot any of these suspicious signs.
1. Weight Loss
One common early symptom of liver cancer is unexplained weight loss, affecting up to 40% of cancer patients at the time of diagnosis. If you have been eating regularly but your level of activity or level of stress has not increased, the falling number on the scale could point to a serious underlying problem.
Often, this initial weight loss is linked to changes in appetite or periodic nausea (two other early cancer symptoms), but the cancer could also be causing changes in your metabolism, leading your body to burn through its calories quickly. When weight loss comes with other changes or new discomforts, it is time to see a doctor.
2. An Enlarged Liver
The liver is a fairly wide organ that sits relatively close to the surface of your body, so physical changes are sometimes more pronounced than they would be in other organs. Bumps or swelling on the right side under the lower ribs can indicate an enlarged liver, which often comes with a feeling of fullness.
Several conditions can cause your liver to grow beyond its normal proportions, so this does not necessarily indicate cancer. However, a more defined mass that is firm to the touch could be a tumor, and demands immediate attention.
3. Pain in the Right Side
The early stages of liver cancer rarely bring much pain or discomfort, but as the disease progresses and the tumor grows, you may begin to notice some pressure and pain in the right side of your upper abdomen.
In some cases, the pain is in the right shoulder blade: known as referred pain, this happens when the liver begins to press on the nerves beneath the diaphragm that link to the nerves in the shoulder. The pain may be constant or it could come and go, and sometimes it is only a mildly uncomfortable sensation. When pressure on the diaphragm is involved, chronic hiccups can come with the pain.
It normally comes with a loss of appetite or abdominal swelling, but nausea could also show up before any other symptoms of liver cancer. As your liver loses function, it fails to filter out all the toxic by-products of your regular metabolism, and those can build-up to cause a vague feeling of sickness, or more pronounced nausea.
As the build-up continues, the nausea can worsen, turning into vomiting and severe loss of appetite. In other cases, the tumor on the liver will produce certain hormones that lead to high blood calcium levels (called hypercalcemia), which can lead to nausea and other digestive distress.
When cancer cells affect the liver and surrounding area, they can cause changes in blood vessels and lymph nodes, resulting in a buildup of fluid. This swelling is known as ascites, and features a hard, protruding abdomen. The backup of fluids can be explained in a number of ways: the cancer cells may have spread to the abdominal lining and irritated the tissue, the cells may have increased pressure in the veins that drain through the liver, or they may begin to block the lymphatic system. In any case, ascites will not go away by itself, whether or not it is caused by cancer, and you will need to have your doctor drain the fluid away.
Certain types of cancer tend to cause itching all over the body, and while experts are not exactly sure why, they suspect it has something to do with the substances released by the tumor. Although Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma account for the most severe itching, everything from stomach cancer to brain tumors have been known to cause chronic, widespread itching. In the case of liver cancer, itching is likely the result of bile building up in your body, and should begin to calm down with appropriate treatment.
7. Yellowing Skin and Eyes
Once cancer cells start to block your bile ducts, the bile from your liver will flow back into your bloodstream instead of into your small intestine, causing your skin and the whites of your eyes to turn a dull yellow. This condition is known as jaundice, and apart from yellowing skin and eyes, the toxic levels of bile can lead to severe itch, dark colored urine, and light colored stools. While jaundice does not always indicate liver cancer, it usually signals a serious disorder that calls for immediate treatment.
8. Loss of Appetite
Food aversions and less inclination to eat meals is not that uncommon – everything from a virus to stress can drain your appetite for a time. However, an ongoing loss of appetite can signal a problem with your metabolism or the organs surrounding your stomach; in the case of liver cancer, the enlarged liver can begin to press on the stomach, leaving you with a feeling of fullness even after eating a very small amount. Sometimes your metabolic processes are interrupted, which confuses your body’s need to take in calories and its ability to use them. Appetite loss can quickly lead to weight loss, fatigue and malnutrition.
9. Weakness and Fatigue
As with many types of cancer, weakness and fatigue are often the first signs of a deeper problem. Sometimes the cancer itself interferes with your metabolism and energy stores, but dealing with the pain and discomfort of other symptoms can also leave you feeling exhausted. Fatigue is more than feeling tired: this is when you wake up feeling unrested and continue to struggle with a heavy, tired feeling throughout the day. Many patients claim they are too tired to manage their daily tasks, and eventually, they stop doing the things they enjoy. Fatigue can be mental as well as physical, and at times you may find it difficult to concentrate or recall information.
Remember that these symptoms can also point to other issues, so it is important not to jump to conclusions, but you should never ignore anything that indicates liver problems. Since it is virtually impossible to diagnose liver cancer without a series of specific medical tests, the sooner you bring your concerns to your doctor, the quicker they can arrive at a diagnosis.