One of the fastest growing cancer-types in the U.S., liver cancer is a serious, life-threatening illness. For patients in which cancer has spread to distant parts of the body such as the bones or lungs, the five-year survival rate for liver cancer is just three percent. However, catching it early and intervening quickly can greatly improve one's prognosis. "For people with early-stage liver cancers who have a liver transplant, the five-year survival rate is in the range of 60 percent to 70 percent," according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
The key, experts say, is recognizing the warning signs and checking in with your doctor if you think something is amiss—no matter how subtle the symptom may be. Read on to learn the number one liver cancer symptom people ignore, as well as other symptoms which may tip you off to this serious form of cancer.
READ THIS NEXT: This Popular Party Snack May Cause Colon Cancer, Experts Say.
Liver cancer typically presents with subtle symptoms.
Liver cancer can cause a wide range of detectable symptoms, or none at all, experts say. These may include unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, having an enlarged liver or spleen (experienced as a feeling of "fullness" under the ribs), abdominal pain, abdominal swelling, itchy skin, and jaundice.
Less frequently, patients may also experience "fever, enlarged veins on the belly that can be seen through the skin, and abnormal bruising or bleeding," says ACS.
READ THIS NEXT: If You Feel This in Your Throat, Get Checked for Cancer.
This makes liver cancer difficult to spot.
Liver cancer can be especially difficult to spot and diagnose, since many of the symptoms associated with the condition are not unique to it. "Many of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by other conditions," explains ACS. "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, if needed."
They add that the signs and symptoms of liver cancer often do not become apparent until the later stages of the disease. However, speaking with your doctor about any suspicious symptoms you may notice can greatly improve your chances of early detection. "If caught early, a diagnosis of liver cancer need not be a death sentence," says the American Liver Foundation. "Regular screening in high-risk individuals can detect liver cancer in its earliest stages when treatment can be most effective."
This is the number one liver cancer symptom people ignore, doctors say.
The data suggests that diagnostic delays are common among liver cancer patients. In fact, one 2017 study published in the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (JNCCN) which looked at cases of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC)—the most common form of liver cancer—found that most cases were detected in later stages of the disease. "Despite the availability of efficacious surveillance tests, only 40 percent of HCC cases are diagnosed at an early stage nationally," the study says. The authors note that among the patients with diagnostic delay, 84 percent visited a gastroenterology clinic or their primary care doctor, but their cancer was not recognized.
"Most patients have no symptoms [early on]," explains Anton Bilchik, MD, PhD, a surgical oncologist and division chair of general surgery at Providence Saint John's Health Center and chief of medicine at Saint John's Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California. However, in its more advanced stages, many patients will experience abdominal swelling—an especially easy sign to overlook. "Everyone experiences periods of bloating, abdominal discomfort, and reflux, but most times these are not associated with malignancy," Bilchik told Best Life, describing the symptom as "very vague and non-specific."
For more health news sent directly to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
Here's how to reduce your liver cancer risk.
The American Cancer Society says there are several ways you may be able to lower your risk of liver cancer. "Many liver cancers could be prevented by reducing exposure to known risk factors for this disease," they explain.
The biggest risk factor for liver cancer is having a chronic case of Hepatitis B or Hepatitis C, so preventing these infections can greatly reduce your risk of liver cancer. The organization also recommends limiting alcohol and tobacco use, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting your exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, and treating other underlying health conditions that can lead to liver cancer, such as cirrhosis.
If you believe you may be at high risk for liver cancer, or if you believe you may be exhibiting its signs of symptoms, however subtle, make an appointment to speak with your health care provider.