Liver cancer usually has no symptoms in the early stages, and tumors often cannot be felt from outside the body. On top of that, spots on the liver that may be cancer are small and difficult to detect. MD Anderson’s highly skilled specialists use advanced techniques to find and diagnose even the smallest spots on the liver.
Physical exam: If you have liver cancer symptoms, the first step is a physical exam. The doctor will:
- Feel your abdomen to examine the liver, spleen and nearby organs
- Check your abdomen for an abnormal accumulation of fluid (ascites)
- Examine your skin and eyes for signs of jaundice
If the doctor suspects liver cancer, you may have one or more of the following tests to diagnose it and find out if it has spread.
Blood tests: One common blood test detects alpha-fetoprotein (AFP), which can be a sign of liver cancer. Other blood tests may be done to measure how well the liver is working.
Imaging tests, such as:
- CAT (computed axial tomography) scans are usually the first tests performed to see the extent of liver cancer. Our technology includes a triple-phase CT scan with special protocols to study tumors of the liver or biliary tract.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) can be helpful in studying liver cancers. MRIs may include the use of contrast material and x-rays of the bile ducts.
Biopsy: A sample of tissue from the tumor is removed and looked at under a microscope. Healthy tissue may also be tested to see how well the liver is working. Biopsy techniques include:
- Fine needle aspiration (FNA): A thin needle is inserted into the liver to remove a small amount of tissue.
- Core biopsy: This is like FNA, but a thicker needle is used to remove small cylinder-shaped samples (cores).
- Laparoscopy: A small cut is made in the abdomen. A thin, illuminated tube called a laparoscope is inserted to view the tumor and retrieve a tissue sample.
- Surgical biopsy: Tissue is removed during an operation.
Genomic/Molecular Profiling: This type of testing may be used to identify specific biomarkers. They can be used to choose the best liver cancer treatments and clinical trials.
If you are diagnosed with liver cancer, your doctor will determine the stage of the disease. Staging classifies how much cancer is in the body and where it has spread at the time it is diagnosed. This helps your care team decide the best way to treat the cancer. The original cancer stage stays the same even if treatment is successful or the cancer spreads.
There are several staging systems for liver cancer. Different systems are used depending on factors like the type of liver cancer and the reason it is being staged. Your doctor can provide more information on the staging system they are using.
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