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Liver Cancer


What Is Liver Cancer?

Your liver is a gastrointestinal organ. It helps digest fat, clean blood, control hormones and store energy. A number of cancers can spread (metastasize) there. Less commonly, cancer develops first in the liver, usually as hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). This is called primary liver cancer.

At Aurora Health Care, you benefit from top treatment for primary liver cancer. In addition to surgical expertise, we provide new options for advanced disease treatment and continue to research others. You will also find specialized care for metastatic liver cancer.


What Causes Liver Cancer?

Doctors and researchers don’t fully understand why primary liver cancer develops. But they have identified certain factors that can increase your risk, which you can manage with medical help:

  • Becoming infected with hepatitis B or hepatitis C virus (ask a doctor for a blood test if you’re concerned)
  • Having diabetes, particularly if the condition is not under control
  • Having hemochromatosis, an iron storage disease
  • Drinking heavily
  • Having obesity
  • Having cirrhosis, or chronic liver scarring and damage


Signs & Symptoms of Primary Liver Cancer

Early stages of liver cancer don’t usually cause symptoms. When symptoms do arise, they can be similar to those caused by other diseases and can include:

  • Pain in the right side of the upper abdomen, in the back or near the right shoulder blade
  • Lump on the right side just below the rib cage
  • Swollen abdomen (bloating) or a heavy feeling in the upper abdomen
  • Loss of appetite and feeling full after eating a small meal
  • Unexplained weight loss, fever, weakness or fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Yellow skin and eyes (jaundice), pale stools and dark urine
  • Easy bruising or bleeding


Diagnosing Primary Liver Cancer

Your doctor usually starts with a complete physical exam and questions about your symptoms, medical history and family. Blood tests evaluate liver function and look for substances tumors may produce. If doctors find a tumor, they may take a sample of it (biopsy).

Most people also undergo imaging tests, with options that include:

  • Computed tomography (CT): Multiple X-rays show the liver and surrounding organs.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A magnetic field and radio waves create pictures of the area.
  • Ultrasound exam: A scanning device placed on the abdomen uses sound waves to look at the liver and nearby organs.


Treatments for Liver Cancer

Treatment for metastatic liver cancer depends on where the cancer began. For primary liver cancer, options depend on how much of the liver the disease has harmed and whether it has spread. People with smaller tumors and good liver function can more often have the cancer removed or destroyed.

Treatments include:

  • Ablation: Ablation destroys tumors with heat, cold or electricity, delivered through a needle or during minimally invasive surgery. Sometimes the goal is to cure cancer, and other times to manage it. A breakthrough cancer ablation, NanoKnife, provides a new option for controlling locally advanced liver cancer.
  • Chemotherapy: Standard drugs to destroy cancer cells typically don’t work well for liver cancer, though chemotherapy can sometimes shrink tumors in preparation for surgery.
  • Embolization: Unlike most other organs, the liver has two veins that supply it with blood. Using embolization, doctors can safely close off the vein feeding the tumor to slow its growth. They can also deliver radiation therapy (yttrium-90 radioembolization) or chemotherapy (chemoembolization).
  • Radiation therapy: Highly precise CyberKnife radiation therapy can destroy smaller tumors.
  • Surgery: Surgery provides the best chance for a cure. Surgeons may remove only part of the liver, or they may remove the whole organ (liver transplant), with the new liver coming from a living or deceased donor. If your kidneys also decline, you may benefit from a method (en bloc) developed at Aurora for transplanting both organs at the same time. While transplants take place at Aurora St. Luke’s, your team can arrange before and after care at other Aurora cancer clinics.
  • Targeted therapy: If surgery can’t completely remove a tumor, targeted drugs can stop it from making new blood vessels.

Treating Stage 4 Liver Cancer

When standard treatments no longer work for stage 4 cancer, the new Oncology Precision Medicine Clinic can help find new options. Learn more about precision medicine for cancer.

Clinical Trials: Explore Your Liver Cancer Treatment Options

You can access new treatment options before they become widely available, through the Aurora Research Institute’s clinical trials.

You can also participate closer to home thanks to a federal grant that brings clinical trial access to all Aurora cancer clinics. Any Aurora oncologist can enroll you in a trial, making the process even easier. Search clinical trials.

The Aurora Difference

Top Doctors for Liver Cancer, With Leading Surgeries & Minimally Invasive Options

You have access to a wide range of treatment options at Aurora. Surgery and other highly specialized treatments take place at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center, while other care is available at your local Aurora cancer clinic. Collectively, the program offers:

  • Experienced doctors: Your Aurora cancer doctors have all earned board certification after passing extensive tests of their skills and knowledge. Many have also completed additional, highly specialized fellowship training. Find a doctor.
  • Surgical expertise: U.S. News and World Report has ranked Aurora St. Luke’s  high performing for gastroenterology and GI surgery. Aurora St. Luke’s also places among the nation’s top 5% of hospitals for liver transplant results in recent years. We achieved a 100% survival on abdominal transplants in 2017. On average, doctors at Aurora St. Luke’s transplant 30 livers per year, placing the program among the state’s most experienced.
  • Top treatments: You can access treatments like scalpel-free NanoKnife ablation and targeted CyberKnife radiation therapy. As the first cancer program in Wisconsin to adopt NanoKnife and Cyberknife, your doctors have the most experience with these technologies of any team in the state.
  • Team approach: Specialists in medical oncology, surgical oncology, radiation oncology, interventional radiology and gastroenterology collaborate on your care. They thoroughly review your case and provide access to the latest treatments and research. You see everyone you need for evaluation in a single appointment, so you can start treatment sooner. Learn more about your cancer team.
  • Full support: In addition to treatments, you and your loved ones can access a full range of support, including help with liver cancer symptoms. Learn more about cancer support.

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