Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
At first glance, you wouldn’t think that Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi of Star Wars) and Robin Gibb (of the Bee Gees) would have a lot in common. Sadly, these two men both succumbed to liver cancer, a disease that claims roughly 30,000 people in the US annually. Let’s take some time today to talk about liver cancer in its most advanced stage – stage IV – and its symptoms, survival rate, and treatment options.
Liver Cancer Symptoms
Liver cancer has a long list of symptoms that could easily be mistaken for other conditions. While some of these symptoms can be benign, it is important to visit your physician if you are experiencing these. The key to survival is early detection – so don’t ignore what your body is trying to tell you! The American Cancer Society provides us with the following symptoms (directly quoted):
- Weight loss (without trying)
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling very full after a small meal
- Nausea or vomiting
- An enlarged liver, felt as a mass under the ribs on the right side
- An enlarged spleen, felt as a mass under the ribs on the left side
- Pain in the abdomen or near the right shoulder blade
- Swelling or fluid build-up in the abdomen
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
Some types of liver tumors can actually produce hormones that affect other body processes. Symptoms of the production of these hormones can include elevated red blood cells, elevated cholesterol, gynecomastia (breast growth in men), low blood sugar, and high levels of calcium in the blood.
Stage 4 Liver Cancer Survival
Survival rates for stage 4 liver cancer are quite low. As with most cancers, liver cancer staging is described with the TNM system. There are two TNM combinations that fall under stage 4: 1) any T, N1, and M0 and 2) any T, any N, and M1. What this means is that there are no restrictions on the number of and size of the tumors in both cases and there can be spread to one lymph node with no metastases, or vice versa. Survival rate for stage 4 liver cancer depends on the extent of the spread of the disease. If the spread is only local – local lymph nodes, blood vessels, or other close by structures, the five-year survival rate is roughly 11%; however, with distant metastases, the five-year survival rate drops to as low as 3%.
Treatment Options for Stage 4 Liver Cancer
With advanced stage liver cancer, treatment options can be limited. Disease at this stage is considered unresectable, so treatments depend upon pharmaceutical and radiation treatments, focusing on pain control and extending the time and quality of life. Chemoembolization of the tumor(s) is an option, as well as targeted therapies with drugs such as sorafenib (Nexavar®) can be utilized in order to shrink the tumor. Other drugs that can be used to help slow the growth, or shrink, the tumor(s) include immunotherapies. You can read more about immunotherapy in “Immunotherapy and Cancer”. Clinical trials may also be an option for you, so visit with your doctor about these options. See our page on clinical trials for information on how to search for studies that may be enrolling in your area.
For those going through late stage cancers, as well as their families and caregivers, finding support is vital. Always know that you are not alone. We encourage your to find support groups both in your area and online. We have found that “Closed Facebook Cancer Groups” offer a great community of patients and caregivers that can offer you care, love, and support from those that have been in your shoes.
As always, much love, many prayers, and abundant blessings to all of the warriors out there!