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What are the effects of liver cancer?

Cancer can start in the liver or spread there from somewhere else in the body. Cancer that has started in the liver is called primary liver cancer. Cancer that has spread to the liver from somewhere else is called secondary liver cancer. Common cancers that can spread to the liver include bowel cancer, breast cancer and lung cancer.

Liver cancer is not necessarily painful. This is because there are no nerve endings in the liver itself. Some people do have pain because the liver has got bigger and stretched its covering. The covering does have nerves. This pain will be in the upper right abdomen, under the ribs on the right hand side. Sometimes people complain of pain in the right shoulder. This is because the enlarged liver is pressing on nerves which are connected to nerves in the shoulder.

Possible symptoms are

  • Feeling sick
  • Losing your appetite
  • Feeling worn out
  • Losing weight
  • Yellow colouring in the whites of the eyes and the skin
  • Itchy skin
  • Swollen abdomen

The yellowing can happen if the bile duct has been blocked by the cancer. Bile is made by the liver from waste products in the blood. If the bile duct is blocked, these waste products then build up in the bloodstream. As they are yellow, they make the skin and eyes yellow. This yellowing is called jaundice. If you have jaundice, your urine may also be very dark coloured.

Itchy skin is caused by waste products collecting in the skin. Your doctor may be able to give you tablets to help control the itching. But you can only really get rid of it if the jaundice is treated. In other words, if the bile duct is no longer blocked.

A swollen abdomen is caused by fluid collecting in the abdomen. This is called ascites. There can be quite a lot of swelling. The swelling has a number of different causes. There may be

  • Blockage of the blood circulation in the liver so fluid builds up
  • The liver may not be making the blood proteins it normally makes which help to keep fluid in the bloodstream
  • Cancer cells may be irritating the lining of the abdomen which then makes fluid that makes the tummy swell
  • The body's drainage system (the lymphatic system) may be blocked by cancer cells
  • Very occasionally, the tumour can puncture and cause bleeding into the abdomen which can cause severe pain

This fluid can often be drained off. But it will build up again unless the cause can be put right.

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Updated: 12 June 2013