About liver cancer

What is the liver?

The liver is the second largest organ in your body after your skin. It is found below your right lung and behind your lower right ribs. The liver is divided into two lobes: the right and the left. Each lobe is further divided into sections called lobules.

The liver is a very important organ and has many roles:

  • It makes proteins that help blood to clot when you cut yourself.
  • It makes other proteins (albumin) needed for fluid balance in your body.
  • It makes cholesterol needed for every cell in your body to grow.
  • It stores and converts carbohydrates and fats into energy.
  • It makes bile that breaks down fats and absorbs them into the body. Bile is stored in the gallbladder, while the bile duct connects the liver to the bowel.
  • It stores glucose and nutrients until the body needs them.
  • It gets rid of substances not needed by your body. These include alcohol, drugs and other waste products.
  • It gets rid of substances not needed by your body. These include alcohol, drugs and other waste products.

What is liver cancer?

When cancer develops in the liver, the cells change and grow in an abnormal way. As the cancer grows it forms a group of cells called a tumour. This tumour can cause a blockage and result in symptoms like pain and jaundice.

When cancer starts in the liver, it is called primary liver cancer. But when cancer starts somewhere else in the body and spreads to the liver, it is called secondary liver cancer. For example, if bowel cancer spreads to the liver, you have primary bowel cancer and secondary liver cancer.

How common is liver cancer?

Though liver cancer is not a common cancer in Ireland, latest figures from the National Cancer Registry of Ireland (NCRI) have shown a 300% rise in liver cancer diagnoses in Ireland in the past two decades.

The average number of new cases each year has gone from 60 in the mid-1990s to more than 270 in 2014.

Of those diagnosed, less than one in five survive their disease for five years or more. In 2013, 306 people in Ireland died from liver cancer, compared an average of just 40 people per year in the late 1990s.

The NCRI point to high alcohol consumption in recent decades as one of the biggest reasons for this four-fold increase.