General Information About Adult Primary Liver Cancer
The primary symptoms of hepatocellular carcinoma are those of a hepatic mass. Among patients with underlying cirrhotic disease, a progressive increase in alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) and/or in alkaline phosphatase or a rapid deterioration of hepatic function may be the only clue to the presence of the neoplasm. Infrequently, patients with this disease have polycythemia, hypoglycemia, hypercalcemia, or dysfibrinogenemia. (For more information on Hypercalcemia, refer to the PDQ summary of the same name.)
The biologic marker AFP is useful for the diagnosis of this neoplasm. By a radioimmunoassay technique, 50% to 70% of patients in the United States who have hepatocellular carcinoma have elevated levels of AFP. However, patients with other malignancies (germ cell carcinoma and, rarely, pancreatic and gastric carcinoma) also demonstrate elevated serum levels of this protein. AFP levels have been shown in studies such as RTOG-8301 to be prognostically important, with the median survival of AFP-negative patients significantly longer than that of AFP-positive patients.[12,13] Other prognostic variables include performance status, liver functions, and the presence or absence of cirrhosis and its severity in relation to the Child-Pugh classification.
Patients scheduled for possible resection require preoperative assessment with angiography in conjunction with helical computed tomographic (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with magnetic resonance angiography; these scans have obviated the need for angiography in most patients. Information on the arterial anatomy is helpful for the operating surgeon and may eliminate some patients from consideration for resection. The presence of tumor thrombi in the hepatic veins, the inferior vena cava, or the portal vein can significantly alter treatment approaches. Dynamic CT and MRI scans can document the relationship of the tumor to the hepatic and portal veins (and, on occasion, involvement of these structures), delineating tumors for which the chances for surgical cure are remote. Laparoscopic evaluation may detect metastatic disease, bilobar disease, or inadequate liver remnant, and therefore obviate the need for open surgical exploration.
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