Liver Cancer

General Information | Treatment Options | Resources

 

General Information
  • About
  • Risk Factors
  • Signs & Symptoms
  • Detection
  • Stages

Childhood liver cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the liver.

The liver is one of the largest organs in the body. It has four lobes and fills the upper right side of the abdomen inside the rib cage. The liver has many important functions, including:

  • Filtering harmful substances from the blood so they can be passed from the body in stools and urine.
  • Making bile to help digest fats from food.
  • Storing glycogen (sugar), which the body uses for energy.

There are two main types of childhood liver cancer:

  • Hepatoblastoma: A type of liver cancer that usually does not spread outside the liver. This type usually affects children younger than 3 years old.
  • Hepatocellular carcinoma: A type of liver cancer that often spreads to other places in the body. This type can affect children of any age.

This summary refers to the treatment of primary liver cancer (cancer that begins in the liver). Treatment of metastatic liver cancer, which is cancer that begins in other parts of the body and spreads to the liver, is not discussed in this summary. Primary liver cancer can occur in both adults and children. Treatment for children, however, is different than treatment for adults. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Adult Primary Liver Cancer Treatment for more information.)

Certain diseases and disorders can increase the risk of developing childhood liver cancer.

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. Risk factors for hepatoblastoma include the following:

  • Being male.
  • Having familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP).
  • Having Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome.
  • Having had a very low weight at birth.

Risk factors for hepatocellular carcinoma include the following:

  • Being male.
  • Having hepatitis B or hepatitis C. The risk is greatest when the virus is passed from mother to child at birth.
  • Having liver damage caused by certain diseases, such as biliary cirrhosis or tyrosinemia.

Possible signs of childhood liver cancer include a lump or pain in the abdomen.

Symptoms are more common after the tumor becomes large. Other conditions can cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • A painless lump in the abdomen.
  • Swelling or pain in the abdomen.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Early puberty in boys.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

Tests that examine the liver and the blood are used to detect (find) and diagnose childhood liver cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Serum tumor marker test: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs, tissues, or tumor cells in the body. Certain substances are linked to specific types of cancer when found in increased levels in the blood. These are called tumor markers. The blood of children who have liver cancer may have increased amounts of a protein called alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) or a hormone called beta-human chorionic gonadotropin (β-hCG). Other cancers and certain noncancerous conditions, including cirrhosis and hepatitis, may also increase AFP levels.
  • Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
    • The number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
    • The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
    • The portion of the blood sample made up of red blood cells.
  • Liver function tests: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by the liver. A higher than normal amount of a substance can be a sign of liver cancer.
  • Abdominal x-ray: An x-ray of the organs in the abdomen. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The picture can be printed to be looked at later.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography. In childhood liver cancer, a CT scan of the chest and abdomen is usually done.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer. The sample may be taken during surgery to remove or view the tumor. A pathologist views the sample under a microscope to determine the type of liver cancer.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (the size of the tumor, whether it affects part or all of the liver, and whether it has spread to other places in the body, such as the lungs).
  • Whether the cancer can be removed completely by surgery.
  • The type of liver cancer (hepatoblastoma or hepatocellular).
  • Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred.

Prognosis may also depend on:

  • Certain features of the cancer cell (how it looks under a microscope).
  • Whether the AFP blood levels go down after chemotherapy begins.

Childhood liver cancer may be cured if the tumor is small and can be completely removed by surgery. Complete removal is possible more often for hepatoblastoma than for hepatocellular carcinoma.

After childhood liver cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the liver or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the liver or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment.

There are 2 staging systems for childhood liver cancer:

  • Postsurgical (after surgery) staging: The stage is based on the amount of tumor that remains after the patient has had surgery to look at or remove the tumor. Postsurgical staging is used for most childhood liver cancer.
  • Presurgical (before surgery) staging: The stage is based on where the tumor has spread within the four parts (quadrants) of the liver, as shown by imaging procedures such as MRI or CT. This staging system, called PRETEXT, may be used for childhood hepatoblastoma.

The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The picture can be printed to be looked at later.
  • Surgery: An operation will be done to look at or remove the tumor. Tissues removed during surgery will be checked by a pathologist.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

The following stages are used after surgery:

Stage I

In stage I, all of the cancer was removed by surgery.

Stage II

In stage II, all of the cancer that can be seen without a microscope was removed by surgery. A small amount of cancer remains in the liver, but it can be seen only with a microscope or the tumor cells may have spilled into the abdomen during surgery.

Stage III

In stage III:

  • the tumor cannot be removed by surgery; or
  • cancer that can be seen without a microscope remains after surgery; or
  • the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes.

Stage IV

In stage IV, the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

The following stages are used for childhood hepatoblastoma before surgery:

PRETEXT Stage 1

In stage 1, the cancer is found in one quadrant of the liver.

PRETEXT Stage 2

In stage 2, cancer is found in two quadrants of the liver that are next to each other.

PRETEXT Stage 3

In stage 3, cancer is found in three quadrants of the liver that are next to each other or two quadrants that are not next to each other.

PRETEXT Stage 4

In stage 4, cancer is found in all four quadrants.

Recurrent Childhood Liver Cancer

Recurrent childhood liver cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the liver or in other parts of the body.

Cancer information from the NCI PDQ service