The liver is the largest organ located in the abdomen and is a part of the digestive system. Among its many functions, the liver makes enzymes and bile that are essential for digestion. The liver also cleans the blood from toxins, metabolizing alcohol, drugs and chemicals. It makes special proteins that help clotting of the blood, transporting substances and providing resistance to infections. It also regulates the balance of hormones, the body’s cholesterol and the supply of vitamins and minerals such as iron.
Liver cancer begins in the cells that line the liver, which are called hepatocytes. These cells can become damaged for a number of different reasons. Sometimes the cells will start growing out of control as they try to repair themselves and can give rise to Hepatocellular Carcinoma (HCC) otherwise known as primary liver cancer.
When the cancer cells begin in duct cells from the gallbladder ducts that cross the liver, the cancer is called cholangiocarcinoma. Other rare types of cancer growing in the liver are lymphomas, sarcomas and neuroendocrine tumours. Many other cancers may spread to the liver, but they are metastatic cancer, not primary to the liver.
Primary liver cancer may develop as a single tumour as a consequence of scarring or cirrhosis of the liver, and can become very large if not diagnosed early. In cases of cirrhotic livers, the cancer may develop in several areas at the same time.
As of June 2017, there has been an estimated 2,500 new cases of Liver Cancer and an estimated 1,200 deaths in Canada (Canadian Cancer Statistics, 2017).