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Liver Cancer: Introduction

The liver cancer program at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta, GA offers advanced treatments for liver cancer patients (including gastrointestinal cancers) in Georgia and the Southeast.

Liver Cancer Questions and Appointments
Contact us for more information about our liver cancer treatment programs.

What is the Liver?
The liver is our largest organ. It converts food into substances needed for life and growth, storing glycogen (a blood-sugar regulator), amino acids, protein, and fat. It also makes the enzymes and bile that help to digest food. In addition, the liver neutralizes harmful toxins and wastes.

Liver functions include:

  • Assimilating and storing fat-soluble vitamins
  • Creating bile
  • Filtering blood
  • Metabolizing fats, proteins, and carbohydrates
  • Metabolizing hormones, internally-produced wastes, and foreign chemicals
  • Producing urea (a primary waste product, flushed from the body in urine)
  • Purifying and clearing waste products, toxins, and drugs
  • Regulating and secreting substances important to maintaining body functions and health
  • Storing important nutrients (such as glycogen glucose), vitamins, and minerals
  • Synthesizing blood proteins

Although the liver is capable of regenerating itself, its capacity to repair itself can be seriously impaired by repeated or extensive damage.

What is Liver Cancer?
Primary liver cancer is generally not discovered early—likely because there are few signs and symptoms of liver cancer in the early stages. The prognosis is often poor, and it does not respond well to liver cancer treatment.

However, by protecting yourself from cirrhosis and hepatitis—the two leading causes of the disease—you can greatly reduce your risk of developing liver cancer.

Note that primary liver cancer—which originates in the liver—is different from metastatic liver cancer in that metastatic only occurs when tumors from other parts of the body spread to the liver. Metastatic cancer, therefore, is not considered liver cancer.

What Causes Liver Cancer?
Liver cancer begins in the liver cells when they start to grow abnormally. Why this happens is not entirely understood, however, researchers suggest that liver cancer begins with damage to DNA.

Risk Factors of Liver Cancer
Although primary liver cancer affects all sexes, ages and races, certain factors increase the risk of liver cancer:

  • Aflatoxin exposure: Foods contaminated with fungi that produce aflatoxins such as corn, peanuts, and soybeans
  • Age: The average age for a liver cancer diagnosis in Europe and the United States is 60 years old
  • Bile duct disease (primary sclerosing cholangitis)
  • Chronic hepatitis B infection (HBV)
  • Chronic hepatitis C infection (HCV): This is the most important risk factor for liver cancer
  • Cirrhosis
  • Diabetes
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Sex: More men than women develop liver cancer
  • Smoking