The Liver

Liver Tumours

What are liver tumours?

Liver tumours are growths that can either be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

Benign liver tumours are relatively common, and typically are not a serious health risk. In many cases, benign liver tumours will go undiagnosed as they do not cause any symptoms. If they are detected, it is usually during an imaging test undergone in relation to another condition. The three main types of benign liver tumours are hepatocellular adenomas, focal nodular hyperplasias and hemangiomas. These conditions rarely require treatment.

Malignant liver tumours are a mass of cancerous cells caused by DNA mutations. Like benign tumours, malignant tumours can go undetected, as early-stage liver cancer does not typically produce many symptoms. The two main types of liver cancer are hepatoblastoma (usually affects children) and hepatocellular carcinoma (usually affects adults). The most common liver cancers though, are cancers which have started in other organs and travel to and then grow in the liver. Those cancers are called secondary or metastatic cancers to the liver. Cancers which start in the liver, are called primary liver cancer.

Diagram of the liver

What causes liver tumours?

There is no known cause of benign liver tumours, although a link between liver adenomas and oral contraceptive use is understood. Adenomas are most commonly seen in women who are of a childbearing age.

Liver cancer occurs when there are DNA mutations in liver cells. In some cases, the cause of liver cancer is known - there are conditions such as chronic hepatitis infections which are understood to cause it. In other cases, the cause is not apparent.

You may be at more risk of having primary liver cancer if; you have cirrhosis, you have a chronic hepatitis B or hepatitis C infection, you have diabetes, you have non alcoholic fatty liver disease, you have inherited liver diseases, you drink alcohol excessively, or you have been exposed to aflatoxins.

Symptoms of liver tumours

Symptoms do not typically arise in the early stages of liver cancer. When symptoms do appear, they can include; appetite loss, unexplained weight loss, nausea, abdominal pain, swelling at the abdomen, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eye whites), tiredness, weakness, and white stools.

If you are concerned about experiencing any of the symptoms above, you should make a doctor's appointment.

Treatment options for liver tumours

Benign liver tumours do not typically require treatment, but when they do cause discomfort, can be removed with surgery.

After malignant liver tumours are diagnosed by means such as blood tests, imaging tests or a biopsy, there are a number of treatment options available. Which treatments are chosen is likely to depend on the stage of the disease, along with the overall health of the individual, their age, and their personal preferences.

Surgery to remove the tumour and the portion of healthy tissue which surrounds it can be an option for small tumours when the liver is functioning well. Surgeons need to leave adequate blood flow to and from the liver that remains behind, and that piece of liver needs to be large enough/work well enough, for the person to live. Liver transplant surgery removes and replaces the diseased liver with a healthy liver - the procedure is typically only suitable for those with early-stage liver cancer and associated chronic liver disease/cirrhosis.

There is a range of localised treatments for liver cancer that can be effective in destroying cancer cells, these include heating, freezing, the injection of alcohol into the tumour, the injection of chemotherapy drugs and radiation beads.

Radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted drug therapy are other possible treatments.