What Is Liver Cancer?

The liver is a very important organ in the human body. It is placed under right ribs just under the right lung. The most important function of the liver is to convert food into energy and filtering and storing blood. The liver plays a pivotal role in the detoxification of blood, i.e. removal of toxins produced in the body due to metabolic activity of the body. The liver receives blood from two sources, the hepatic artery supplies the liver with blood from the heart that is rich in oxygen and the portal vein carries nutrient-rich blood from the digestive organs. Liver also produces clotting agents necessary for clotting the blood when the body is injured. It secretes bile into the intestines, to help absorb nutrients. The liver is made up of several different types of cells. This is why there are several types of malignant (cancerous) and benign (non-cancerous) tumors that can form in the liver.

Benign tumors

(i) Hemangioma — The most common type of benign tumor of the liver, starts in blood vessels. Because most hemangiomas of the liver cause no symptoms, they do not need treatment. Some however may need to be surgically removed.

(ii) Hepatic adenomas — These are benign tumors of hepatocytes (the main type of liver cell). Most cause no symptoms and do not need treatment. However, some eventually cause symptoms, such as abdominal pain, a mass in the abdomen, or blood loss. Because there is a risk that the tumor could rupture, and a small risk that it would eventually develop into liver cancer, most experts usually recommend surgical removal if possible.

(iii) Focal nodular hyperplasia — This is a tumor growth of several cell types. Although FNH tumors are benign, it can be difficult to tell them apart from true liver cancers, and they sometimes are surgically removed when diagnosis is unclear.

Malignant tumors

(i) Hepatocellular carcinoma: — It is the most common form of liver cancer occurring. It is on numerous occasions called hepatoma because it comes from the hepatocytes. It accounts for about 75% of primary liver cancers.

(ii) Cholangiocarcinomas: — This accounts for 10 to 20% of primary liver cancers. These are also called intrahepatic (starting with the liver) Cholangiocarcinoma. These cancer starts in the small bile ducts within the liver.

(iii) Angiosarcomas and hemangiosarcomas: — These are rare cancers that begin in the blood vessels of the liver. Exposure to various chemicals such as vinyl chlorides or thorium oxide, and radioactive elements like radium or poisons like arsenic are known to cause these types of cancers. Angiosarcomas grow rapidly, by the time they are detected the growth is too large to be surgically removed.

(iv) Hepatoblastoma: — This is a very rare kind of cancer that developed in children, usually up to five years of age. If detected early this cancer is highly treatable.

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