Liver cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer deaths worldwide, leading to over 750,000 deaths annually.
October being breast cancer awareness month, you might wonder what the connection is between these two cancers; breast and liver cancer. Well, the liver is one of the places where breast cancer can spread to, causing secondary liver cancer (liver metastasis). Apart from breast cancer other types of cancers that can spread to the liver include lung, pancreatic and stomach cancers.
This article focuses of metastasis liver cancer which can often be overlooked.
About the liver
The liver is the largest internal organ in the human body whose major functions include:
- Filtering blood to remove toxins,
- Producing bile which helps in the break down and absorption of food in the small intestine,
- Storing glucose which gives the body energy,
- Making enzymes that assist in the many metabolic functions in the body, and
- Storing vitamins as well as minerals, among other functions.
When cancer spreads to the liver, the liver may be damaged leading to it not performing its functions as required.
What is Liver Metastasis?
This is liver cancer that occurs when primary cancer from other body parts, spreads to the liver. It is always caused by primary cancer in the pancreas, ovaries, uterus, stomach, kidney and breast, among other parts of the body.
How does this spread occur?
Even though all cancers may not follow the same process, most of them go through it, which leads to secondary cancers.
- Local invasion: This involves cancer cells moving from the primary site to the nearby normal tissue.
- Intravasation: The cancer then moves to the nearby lymph vessels and blood vessels,
- Circulation: This is when the cancer cells migrate through the lymphatic system and bloodstream to other parts of the body,
- Arrest and extravasation: When the cancer cells reach another location, they move through the small blood vessels known as capillary walls, invading the tissues nearby,
- Proliferation: When the cancer cells grow at a distant location and form micrometastases (small tumours), and finally
- Angiogenesis: The micrometastases stimulate the formation of new blood vessels which then supply oxygen and nutrients to the tumours, helping them grow.
Symptoms of Liver Metastasis
Some of the symptoms of metastasis liver cancer are:
- Weight loss,
- Passing dark-coloured urine,
- Nausea and vomiting,
- Pain in the right shoulder
- Abdominal pain, and
- Loss of appetite, among other symptoms
Diagnosing Liver Metastasis
Liver metastasis or secondary liver cancer can be diagnosed when the primary liver cancer is being diagnosed or even months or years after primary liver cancer is diagnosed. Tests that can be used in this diagnosis include:
- Imaging tests: Tests such as computerised tomography (CT) scan, an ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), among other tests.
- Liver function tests: These are tests done to check whether the liver is functioning properly because when the liver is not functioning as expected, its enzyme levels are usually high.
- Laparoscopy: A laparoscope (thin flexible tube fitted with a camera and a light is used to view the inside of the abdomen. It is inserted through small incisions in the abdomen.
- Biopsy: This is done by taking a sample of cell from the liver to check for the presence of cancer cells.
- Blood tests: These can be done to check a person’s general health.
How is Metastasis Liver Cancer treated?
The treatment for secondary liver cancer is aimed at controlling the spread of the cancer and the shrinking the cancer tumour(s) so as to improve a person’s quality of life. Chemotherapy is usually the most common type of treatment used, however, the type of treatment depends the location of the primary cancer, the number and size of the tumors, the patients age as well as their general health.
The types of treatments used can include:
- Surgery: It involves removing the part of the liver affected by the cancer and even though it is the most effective treatment, it may not be possible at times
- due to a person’s health status. It can be done to remove just a section of the liver with cancer, the whole lobe of the liver or part of the liver.
- Chemotherapy: It involves using anti-cancer drugs to kill, shrink or slow down the growth of cancer tumour.
- Targeted therapy: This is treatment done to target and destroy cancer cells without harming the normal cells in the body.
- Hormonal therapy: It works by denying the cancer, the hormones it needs to grow, thereby slowing down or stopping its growth.
- Radiation therapy: This involves the use of high-energy beams to kill cancer cells and shrink cancer tumours.
However, in most cases, palliative care is offered to control the cancer symptoms, and prolong a person’s life while improving their quality of life.
Prevention of Metastasis Liver Cancer
There is no known way to prevent secondary liver cancer, however, through palliative care as stated earlier, people with this type of liver cancer can have improved quality of life by having its symptoms reduced and its growth slowed down. By treating primary cancers before they spread to the liver, you can also reduce your risk of getting liver metastasis.
Early screening of cancer especially if you have hepatitis, which is a major cause, can help you get early diagnosis which is very helpful in getting effective and efficient treatment which will prevent or stop the growth of the cancer cells.