The world experienced a palpable and seismic tremor of sadness at the death of David Bowie this week, who had fought an 18 month battle with cancer. As further details emerge it seems that the underlying diagnosis was of liver cancer. So what exactly is liver cancer and who gets it?
There are 2 main types of liver cancer, ‘primary’, where the cancer originates from liver and associated tissue and ‘secondary’ (or metastatic) where the cancer has spread to the liver from another site in the body. In western society, secondary is very much more common than primary, which is pretty rare.
Secondary Liver Cancer
Secondary or metastatic liver cancer is by far the most common type of liver cancer seen in developed countries. It occurs when a cancer has developed somewhere else in the body and tiny cells of the cancer break off and circulate around the body in the blood or lymphatic system. It is is likened to a plant or flower disseminating its seeds and is often referred to in medical parlance, as the cancer seeding itself.
The liver is an extremely important organ, in that it is not just the industrial manufacturing powerhouse of the body, it is also responsible for ‘cleaning’ and ‘detoxifying’ the blood and so no wonder that cancer cells frequently lodge there.
Sadly this makes treatment of cancer very difficult because if a cancer has already seeded itself to the liver, then in most circumstances, the cancer is not curable by a simple operation to remove it and often complicated and onerous courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy are required to try and suppress or remove the cancer.
Primary Liver Cancer
This is much rarer than secondary cancer and occurs when a cancer develops actually within liver or associated tissue.
In 99% of the time, the liver is already diseased and has developed cirrhosis. The commonest causes for cirrhosis are alcohol and chronic hepatitis B or C.
Alcohol is the commonest cause of primary liver cancer in the west and chronic hepatitis B in the far east and in Africa.
In the 60s and 70s when IV drug abuse became more of a problem in the UK, then hepatitis C (still not actually identified) was passed around between the users to such an extent that nearly 100% became infected with hepatitis C. Many of these have subsequently developed liver cirrhosis and primary liver cancer. There have however, been great advances in curing patients with chronic hepatitis.
If you are worried about liver cancer in you or someone you know then ask your GP or doctor.
Dr Helen Webberley