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What is Liver Cancer?

Liver Cancer can be defined in two forms- Primary or what is usually recognized by names like Hepatocellular Carcinoma or Cholangiocarcinoma and Secondary or Metastatic Liver Cancer.

What Is Primary Liver Cancer

Cancer in the liver is primary when it has originated in the liver. Liver cells grow unusually, and the old ones do not die as usual. This excessive cell population results in a lump. This piece can turn out to be malignant, i.e. cancerous, or benign, i.e. mostly harmless.

What Is Metastatic Liver Cancer or Secondary Liver Cancer

The primary cancerous cells are formed somewhere else in the body, like in the lungs, blood, or any other organ. These destructive cells travel via the blood stream, reach the liver as all the body’s blood does, and accumulate there to form a lump.
Since this type of cancer is originated somewhere else in the body and travels to the liver to cause cancer, it’s called Metastatic liver cancer.

What Causes Liver Cancer

Many factors like lifestyle, environment, other diseases, etc. can cause liver cancer. Some certain reasons include excessive alcohol use, congenital disabilities, chronic hepatitis B and C infection, cirrhosis, hemochromatosis, sometimes obesity and fatty liver diseases.
Various other liver cancer-causing factors are either being studied or yet to be discovered. One such element, triclosan, a soap ingredient was found to introduce liver fibrosis and thus, cancer to the subject on long-term exposure, as seen by the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.

What Are the Risk Factors for Liver Cancer

Cirrhosis and chronic hepatitis B infections are some major liver cancer-causing diseases. Any situation that leads to these two is a risk factor. This list includes gender, weight, race, diabetes history, steroid use, inherited metabolic diseases, or any rare diseases.

What Are the Symptoms of Liver Cancer

On its own, liver cancer- primary or metastatic, allows for very faint signs to surface t, sometimes not even that. It gets difficult to detect this cancer from symptoms. However, any combination of the following mentioned events might indicate towards liver cancer.

  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Appetite loss
  • Itching
  • Jaundice- yellowing of skin and eyes
  • A mass that you can feel on the right side of your body, under the ribs.
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Fever
  • Enlarged belly veins
  • Abnormal bruising or bleeding
  • Wasting or cachexia

How Do Doctors Diagnose Liver Cancer

While there are many methods of diagnosing liver cancer, some of them like a biopsy are extremely invasive and hence opted for only when all other tests have tanked. For patients who already have a cirrhosis diagnosis, it is better and preferred to go through an ultrasound twice a year.

Certain other tests that can help in diagnosing liver cancer are mentioned here.

  • Physical examination
  • Blood tests
  • Ultrasound
  • Computed Tomography Scan (CAT Scan)
  • Magnetic Resource Imaging (MRI)
  • Angiogram
  • Laparoscopy
  • Biopsy
  • Molecular tumor testing

Liver biopsy, while considered a method with mostly accurate results, can be equally dangerous to the patient. Since a tissue sample is required here to examine for cancer, a needle is used to extract the sample. This puts the patient at the risk of infection, seeding of cancer via the needle or internal bleeding.

Liver Cancer Stages

The American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) TNM system has laid down the most famous rules of cancer staging in the present world. Based on these, liver cancer can have four stages.

Stage 1- the tumor is away from blood vessels, and cancer has not reached and corrupted nearby lymph nodes.

Stage 2- either the number of tumors will increase, or the primary tumor will grow and attach itself to the blood vessels.

Stage 3- in stage 3, there are three possibilities where cancer can be directed.

It is possible that the tumor hasn’t corrupted the nearby lymph nodes, but has developed into several small tumors.
It is also possible that the tumor has multiplied and at least one of them has started attaching itself to a portal vein branch or a hepatic vein branch.
If not, then the final possibility is that the tumor has grown enough to cover the outer liver lining or any close organ.

Stage 4- either the tumor has spread to the nearby organs and the bloodstream, or it has gone far and out and covered distant parts as well.

How Is Liver Cancer Treated

While keeping the fact in mind that a human liver has the power of regeneration, the treatment will depend on how much liver has been destroyed, how much is left, and how much is worth recovering. In a case where recovery is no longer an option, a transplant is a preferred option.
However, in the early stages, therapy depends upon whatever part of the disease is targeted. Certain treatment options are mentioned here.

  • Surgery
  • Transplant
  • Ablation therapy
  • Embolization
  • Radiation therapy
  • Targeted agents
  • Chemotherapy

Follow-up Treatment for Liver Cancer

With liver cancer, end of active treatment is not the end of all treatment. Follow-up is crucial to ensure that the patient stays in good shape. Regular medical tests, physical examinations and drug dose monitoring, are included in this procedure, although the patient can be discharged.

  • Doctors monitor the patient to ensure that recurrence doesn’t occur.
  • Long-term side effects and late side effects are studied.
  • Physical abilities are tried and tested before an approval can be released on what the patient can do and shouldn’t do.
  • Diet and drugs which require careful screening and timely intakes for days, sometimes months or years after the treatment, are planned and revised.

What Is the Prognosis of Liver Cancer

The five-year survival rate, which means the percentage of people who’ll be alive five years after the cancer is discovered is 15%, as per American Cancer Society. For localized cancer, which is when the cancer is confined to the liver only, the survival rate is 28%. This figure is reduced to 7% for the cases where the cancer is regional, has spread to the organs nearby the liver.

In cases where cancer has become distant and has covered many tissues and blood vessels, it is tough to extend life beyond two years.

Survival rates for treatments

Surgically removed liver cancer cases have a reported five-year survival rate of 50%. Successful transplant cases boast a five-year survival rate of 70%.

Can People Prevent Liver Cancer?

It is possible to prevent liver diseases like cirrhosis, which might cause cancer to rise. But with all the out-of-control risk factors of liver cancer, prevention works only if the patient tries, gets regular checkups and stresses the liver in the least possible amounts.

Where Can Someone Gain Information on Liver Cancer in Detail?

A doctor you trust is always the best source. However, American Cancer Society and National Comprehensive Cancer Network are suitable for self-educating purposes.