Tumors are groupings of abnormal cells that cluster together to form a mass or lump. When a tumor develops in the liver, the organ is unable to function properly.
Tumors of the liver — a large, reddish organ in the abdomen that produces proteins and digestive juices, stores energy, and removes toxins from the body — can be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
Most benign liver tumors are present at birth, and are usually the result of abnormal tissue growth while the fetus was developing. The most common type of benign liver tumor is called a mesenchymal hamartoma. Though these tumors do need to be removed through surgery, kids who have them generally do not require further treatment or experience long-term problems.
Malignant liver tumors occur less frequently and typically require more aggressive treatment, such as chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. The two most common types of liver malignancies are called hepatoblastoma and hepatocellular carcinoma.
Hepatoblastoma is most common in babies and very young children (usually younger than 3). When detected early, this type of cancer usually responds well to treatment.
Hepatocellular carcinoma can occur at any age, but usually affects teens more than younger kids. Because this type of cancer usually appears in several different areas in the liver, it is much more difficult to treat than hepatoblastoma.
The cause of malignant liver tumors is unknown. However, doctors do know that having certain medical conditions can put some kids at risk. For example, Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome (a genetic condition that causes excessive growth), problems with metabolism, biliary atresia (a malformation of the bile duct between the liver and the small intestine), and hepatitis B infection can increase a child's risk for hepatoblastoma.
Medical conditions associated with an increased risk of hepatocellular carcinoma are familial cirrhosis (scarring of the liver that is not due to alcoholism), Fanconi's anemia (a disease of the bone marrow), or infection with hepatitis B or C.
Early on, a child with a benign or malignant liver tumor might have few symptoms — or none at all. As the tumor grows, however, the following symptoms may develop:
A doctor who suspects that a child has a liver tumor will perform a thorough physical exam in addition to these tests:
Treatment of malignant liver tumors depends on staging. Staging is a classification system (usually using Roman numerals l-lV) that helps doctors determine how far the cancer has progressed. It takes into account things like the size of the tumor (or tumors), how deeply the tumor has penetrated an organ, and whether the tumor has spread (metastasized) to nearby or distant organs.
This information, in addition to a child's age and overall heath, helps doctors develop treatment plans that may include the following options, in combination or alone:
The stress of having a child who is being treated for a tumor (whether malignant or not) can be overwhelming for any parent. Although you might feel like it at times, you're not alone.
To find out about support that may be available to you or your child, talk to your child's doctor or a hospital social worker. Many resources are available to help you get through this difficult time.