Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC, also called hepatoma or liver cancer) is a primary malignancy (cancer) of the liver. Most cases of HCC are secondary to either hepatitis infection (usually hepatitis B or C) or cirrhosis (alcoholism being the most common cause of hepatic cirrhosis). In countries where hepatitis is not endemic, most cancers in the liver are not primary HCC but metastasis (spread) of cancer from elsewhere in the body, e.g. the colon. Treatment options of HCC and prognosis are dependent on many factors but especially on tumor size and staging. more...
In Sub-Saharan Africa and most other Third World countries the commonly accepted prognosis is a median survival of 3 months from diagnosis. This is partially due to late presentation with large tumours, but also the lack of medical expertise and facilities.
The epidemiology of HCC exhibits two main patterns, one in North America and Western Europe and another in Non-Western Countries (regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, central Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Amazon basin).
In some parts of the world, such as Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia (and especially Taiwan and China) HCC is the most common cancer, generally affecting men more than women, and with an age of onset between late teens and 30's. This variability is in part due to the different patterns of Hepatitis B transmission in different populations - infection at or around birth (as in Taiwan) predispose to earlier cancers than if people are infected later. The time between hepatitis B infection and development into HCC can be years even decades, but from diagnosis of HCC to death the average survival period is only 5.9 months, according to one Chinese study during the 1970-80s, or 3 months (median survival time) in Sub-Saharan Africa according to Manson's textbook of tropical diseases. HCC is one of the deadliest cancers in China. Food infected with Aspergillus flavus (especially peanuts and corns stored during prolonged wet seasons) which produces aflatoxin, poses another risk factor for HCC.
North America and Western Europe
Most malignant tumors of the liver discovered in Western patients are metastases (spread) from tumors elsewhere. In the West, HCC is generally seen as rare cancer, normally of those with pre-existing liver disease. It is often detected by ultrasound screening, and so can be discovered health-care facilities much earlier than in developing regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa.
Diagnosis, screening and monitoring
Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) most commonly appears in a patient with chronic viral hepatitis (hepatitis B or hepatitis C, 20%) or with cirrhosis (about 80%). These patients commonly undergo surveillance with ultrasound due to the cost-effectiveness.
In patients with a higher suspicion of HCC (such as rising alpha-fetoprotein levels), the best method of diagnosis involves a CT scan of the abdomen using intravenous contrast agent and three-phase scanning (before contrast administration, immediately after contrast administration, and again after a delay) to increase the ability of the radiologist to detect small or subtle tumors. It is important to optimize the parameters of the CT examination, because the underlying liver disease that most HCC patients have can make the findings more difficult to appreciate.
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