Liver cancer is a life-threatening disease that's diagnosed at a rate of over 40,000 new cases each year in the U.S. And while experts say it's still relatively rare, liver cancer rates have tripled over the past 40 years—and death rates associated with it have doubled.
Recognizing the signs of liver cancer may help you secure a diagnosis sooner, when interventions are most effective. Read on to learn one surprising symptom you may feel under your ribs, and why it could suggest one of two things, depending on which side the sensation is on.
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Liver cancer is difficult to detect in its early stages.
Liver cancer often goes overlooked in its early stages "because signs and symptoms often do not appear until it is in its later stages," says the American Cancer Society. If you do develop symptoms, this may suggest that the cancer is more advanced. "Small liver tumors are hard to detect on a physical exam because most of the liver is covered by the right rib cage," says ACS. "By the time a tumor can be felt, it might already be quite large."
If you feel this under your ribs, see your doctor.
According to the American Cancer Society, people with liver cancer may notice one telltale symptom in their abdomen: a feeling of fullness under their ribs. This can be due to one of two complications of the disease: "an enlarged liver, felt as fullness under the ribs on the right side," or "an enlarged spleen, felt as fullness under the ribs on the left side."
Experts say that pain, swelling, or discomfort in this area can also be due to gastrointestinal issues, kidney problems, gallstones, cirrhosis, and more. However, it is important to discuss your symptoms with your doctor to rule out liver cancer and other serious conditions.
Watch out for these other symptoms of liver cancer.
Several other symptoms may help you identify liver cancer. However, according to ACS, having one or more of these symptoms does not necessarily mean you will be diagnosed with liver cancer. "In fact, many of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by other conditions," the organization notes. "Still, if you have any of these symptoms, it's important to have them checked by a doctor so that the cause can be found and treated," ACS experts add.
Possible symptoms include unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, a feeling of fullness after a small meal, nausea or vomiting, abdominal pain or swelling, itching, and jaundice.
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Ask your doctor about screening if you are at high risk.
There are currently no broadly recommended screening tests for liver cancer for individuals at average risk. However, you should ask your doctor whether testing might be right for you if you believe you are at heightened risk.
You may be considered at greater risk if you have chronic hepatitis B or C, cirrhosis of the liver, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, diabetes, or obesity. Being of advanced age and being male can also increase your risk of developing liver cancer.