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Patient discussing symptoms of liver cancer

Liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma) is a tumor that originates in the liver, the largest solid organ in the body. Located in the right upper abdomen just below the ribcage, the liver performs many vital bodily functions, such as producing proteins, processing nutrients, filtering toxins from the blood, maintaining healthy blood sugar levels and regulating blood clotting. Usually, liver cancer begins as a small cancerous nodule in the liver tissue, which can potentially grow and spread to other parts of the liver and nearby organs and tissues.

Early warning signs of liver cancer

Early-stage liver cancer usually does not produce noticeable symptoms. Any warning signs may be vague, such as abdominal pain and bloating, which can develop due to liver enlargement (hepatomegaly) and fluid accumulation (ascites).

What does liver cancer feel like?

If liver cancer causes pain, it usually originates in the right upper abdomen and radiates toward the right shoulder blade. Sometimes, a hard mass can be felt under the ribs on the right side of the body.

What does liver cancer look like?

In some cases, liver cancer produces a warning sign that is easy to spot: jaundice. Marked by a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, jaundice occurs when the blood contains a high level of bilirubin, a component of the bile produced and released by the liver to aid digestion. Bilirubin may build up if a liver tumor blocks or obstructs the bile duct that connects the liver to the pancreas. In addition to the hallmark yellowing of the skin and eyes, jaundice can also cause darker-than-normal urine and light, chalky or clay-colored stools.

Common symptoms of liver cancer

As liver cancer progresses, other symptoms may begin to develop, such as:

  • A feeling of fullness (satiety) after a small meal
  • Changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Overwhelming fatigue
  • Unexplained fever

It is important to note that these symptoms are not specific to liver cancer; in fact, they are associated with many other medical conditions. Therefore, any unusual changes should be promptly discussed with a physician who can provide an accurate diagnosis and recommend appropriate treatment if necessary.

Symptoms of advanced liver cancer

The symptoms of liver cancer typically worsen with time. Additionally, if the cancer spreads to distant areas of the body (metastasizes), other symptoms may develop depending on the location of the new tumors. For instance, if liver cancer spreads to the bones, it may cause frequent bone fractures.

Advanced liver cancer can also damage the liver and interfere with its vital functions. Because the liver helps remove toxins and waste products from the body, liver cancer can sometimes lead to life-threatening complications, such as intraperitoneal bleeding.

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

The multispecialty team in Moffitt’s renowned Gastrointestinal Oncology Program focuses specifically on preventing, diagnosing and treating liver cancer. If you would like to discuss your symptoms with a specialist at Moffitt, you can request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488 or submitting a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.