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Childhood liver cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the liver.

The liver is one of the largest organs in the body. It has four lobes and fills the upper right side of the abdomen inside the rib cage. The liver has many important functions, including:

  • Filtering harmful substances from the blood so they can be passed from the body in stools and urine.
  • Making bile to help digest fats from food.
  • Storing glycogen (sugar), which the body uses for energy.

Anatomy of the liver; drawing shows the right and left  front lobes of the liver, bile ducts, gallbladder, stomach, spleen, pancreas, colon, and small intestine. The two back lobes of the liver are not shown.

Anatomy of the liver. The liver is in the upper abdomen near the stomach, intestines, gallbladder, and pancreas. The liver has four lobes. Two lobes are on the front and two small lobes (not shown) are on the back of the liver.

 Liver cancer is rare in children and adolescents (teenagers). There are two main types of childhood liver cancer:

  • Hepatoblastoma: A type of liver cancer that usually does not spread outside the liver. This type usually affects children younger than 3 years old.
  • Hepatocellular carcinoma: A type of liver cancer that often spreads to other places in the body. This type usually affects children older than 14 years old. 

The treatment of two less common types of childhood liver cancer is also discussed in this summary:

  • Undifferentiated embryonal sarcoma of the liver (UESL): The third most common liver cancer in children and adolescents. It usually occurs in children between the ages of 5 and 10 years.
  • Infantile choriocarcinoma of the liver: A very rare tumor that appears to start in the placenta and spreads to the fetus. The tumor is usually found during the first few months of life.

Epithelioid hemangioendothelioma is a rare cancer of the blood vessel that occurs in the liver and other organs. 

This summary refers to the treatment of primary liver cancer (cancer that begins in the liver). Treatment of metastatic liver cancer, which is cancer that begins in other parts of the body and spreads to the liver, is not discussed in this summary. Primary liver cancer can occur in both adults and children. Treatment for children, however, is different than treatment for adults. 

Certain diseases and disorders can increase the risk of developing childhood liver cancer.

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. Risk factors for hepatoblastoma include the following:

  • Being male.
  • Having familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP).
  • Having Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome.
  • Having had a very low weight at birth.

Risk factors for hepatocellular carcinoma include the following:

  • Being male.
  • Having hepatitis B or hepatitis C. The risk is greatest when the virus is passed from mother to child at birth.
  • Having liver damage caused by certain diseases, such as biliary cirrhosis or tyrosinemia.

Possible signs of childhood liver cancer include a lump or pain in the abdomen.

Symptoms are more common after the tumor becomes large. Other conditions can cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • A painless lump in the abdomen.
  • Swelling or pain in the abdomen.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Early puberty in boys.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

Tests that examine the liver and the blood are used to detect (find) and diagnose childhood liver cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Serum tumor marker test: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs, tissues, or tumor cells in the body. Certain substances are linked to specific types of cancer when found in increased levels in the blood. These are called tumor markers. The blood of children who have liver cancer may have increased amounts of a protein called alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) or a hormone called beta-human chorionic gonadotropin (β-hCG). Other cancers and certain noncancerous conditions, including cirrhosis and hepatitis, may also increase AFP levels.
  • Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following: The number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
  • The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
  • The portion of the blood sample made up of red blood cells.
  • Liver function tests: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by the liver. A higher than normal amount of a substance can be a sign of liver cancer.
  • Abdominal x-ray: An x-ray of the organs in the abdomen. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The picture can be printed to be looked at later.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography. In childhood liver cancer, a CT scan of the chest and abdomen is usually done.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer. The sample may be taken during surgery to remove or view the tumor. A pathologist views the sample under a microscope to determine the type of liver cancer.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (the size of the tumor, whether it affects part or all of the liver, and whether it has spread to other places in the body, such as the lungs).
  • Whether the cancer can be removed completely by surgery.
  • The type of liver cancer.
  • Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred.

Prognosis may also depend on:

  • Certain features of the cancer cell (how it looks under a microscope).
  • Whether the AFP blood levels go down after chemotherapy begins.

Childhood liver cancer may be cured if the tumor is small and can be completely removed by surgery. Complete removal is possible more often for hepatoblastoma than for hepatocellular carcinoma.

For more information on Liver Cancer click here

This link is to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) cancer website in the United States. There may be references to drugs and clinical trials that are not available here in Australia.

For information courtesy of Cancer Australia click here