Liver Cancer (cont.)

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Surgical options are limited to individuals whose tumors are less than 5 cm and confined to the liver, with no invasion of the blood vessels.

Liver resection

The goal of liver resection is to completely remove the tumor and the appropriate surrounding liver tissue without leaving any tumor behind. This option is limited to patients with one or two small (3 cm or less) tumors and excellent liver function, ideally without associated cirrhosis. As a result of these strict guidelines, in practice, very few patients with liver cancer can undergo liver resection. The biggest concern about resection is that following the operation, the patient can develop liver failure. The liver failure can occur if the remaining portion of the liver is inadequate to provide the necessary support for life. Even in carefully selected patients, about 10% of them are expected to die shortly after surgery, usually as a result of liver failure.

When a portion of a normal liver is removed, the remaining liver can grow back (regenerate) to the original size within one to two weeks. A cirrhotic liver, however, cannot grow back. Therefore, before resection is performed for liver cancer, the non-tumor portion of the liver should be biopsied to determine whether there is associated cirrhosis.

For patients whose tumors are successfully resected, the five-year survival rate is up to 60%. This means that 60% of patients who actually undergo liver resection for liver cancer are expected to live five years. Many of these patients, however, will have a recurrence of liver cancer elsewhere in the liver. Still, this is the procedure of choice for patients without cirrhosis and a solitary tumor who are felt to be medically able to undergo surgery.

Liver transplantation

Liver transplantation has become an accepted treatment for patients with end-stage (advanced) liver disease of various types (for example, chronic hepatitis B and C, alcoholic cirrhosis, primary biliary cirrhosis, and sclerosing cholangitis). Survival rates for these patients without liver cancer are 90% at one year, 80% at three years, and 75% at five years. Moreover, liver transplantation is the best option for patients with tumors that are less than 5 cm in size who also have signs of liver failure. In fact, as one would expect, patients with small cancers (less than 3 cm) and no involvement of the blood vessels do very well. These patients have a less than 10% risk of recurrent liver cancer after transplant. On the other hand, there is a very high risk of recurrence in patients with tumors greater than 5 cm or with involvement of blood vessels. For these reasons, when patients are being evaluated for treatment of liver cancer, every effort should be made to characterize the tumor and look for signs of spread beyond the liver.

There is a severe shortage of organ donors in the U.S. Currently, there are about 18,000 patients on the waiting list for liver transplantation. About 4,000 donated cadaver livers (taken at the time of death) are available per year for patients with the highest priority. This priority goes to people on the transplant waiting list who have the most severe liver failure. A recent change in distribution rules made liver cancer of less than 5 cm in size a priority, so that these people with the greatest chance of being cured can spend less time on the waiting list.

A newer, growing option is live donor transplantation. The use of a partial liver from a healthy, live donor may provide patients with liver cancer an opportunity to undergo liver transplantation before the tumor becomes too large. This innovation is a very exciting development in the field of liver transplantation.

As a precaution, doing a biopsy or aspiration of liver cancer should probably be avoided in patients considering liver transplantation. The reason to avoid needling the liver is that there is about a 1%-4% risk of seeding (planting) cancer cells from the tumor by the needle into the liver along the needle track. You see, after liver transplantation, patients take powerful anti-rejection medications to prevent the patient's immune system from rejecting the new liver. However, the suppressed immune system can allow new foci (small areas) of cancer cells to multiply rapidly. These new foci of cancer cells would normally be kept at bay by the immune cells of an intact immune system. It now appears that people who do undergo transplantation for liver cancer have a lower chance of having the cancer return if they are first treated with a local method such as chemoembolization. This also helps them to be treated while they are spending time on the transplant waiting list, so that the cancer does not grow while they are waiting.

In summary, liver resection should be reserved for patients with small tumors and normal liver function (no evidence of cirrhosis). Patients with multiple or large tumors should receive palliative therapy with systemic chemotherapy or TACE, provided they do not have signs of severe liver failure. Patients with an early stage of cancer and signs of chronic liver disease should receive palliative treatment with RFA, cryoablation, or TACE and undergo evaluation for liver transplantation.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/17/2014

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