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Managing symptoms

Cancer in the liver can cause various symptoms, but there are ways to manage them. With advanced cancer, the palliative care team may be involved in managing symptoms.

With liver cancer, bilirubin sometimes builds up in the blood. The build-up of bilirubin in the blood is known as jaundice. It can cause yellowish skin and whites of the eyes, itchiness, pale stools or dark urine.

Jaundice can sometimes be relieved by unblocking the bile duct with a tiny tube called a stent.

Because the liver plays a key role in the digestive system, cirrhosis and cancer in the liver can both cause you to lose your appetite and you may lose weight.

The tips below can help you prevent or manage appetite changes and weight loss after a diagnosis of liver cancer.

How to stay well nourished

  • Snack during the day – eat 5–6 small meals rather than three large ones each day.
  • Try eating different foods. Your taste and tolerance for some foods may have changed and may continue to change.
  • Ask a dietitian how you can increase your energy and protein intake.
  • Eat when you feel hungry or crave certain foods, but be careful not to become too full by eating too quickly.
  • Ensure you have room for nourishing food – avoid filling up on liquids at mealtimes, unless it’s a hearty soup.
  • Prevent dehydration by drinking liquids between meals (e.g. 30–60 minutes before or after meals).

In some people, liver cancer can cause pain, particularly in the upper right area of the abdomen. This usually only happens in more advanced cases. Pain associated with liver cancer can be managed with pain medicines. Radiation therapy, chemotherapy or surgery may also provide relief by reducing the size of a liver tumour that is causing pain.

Download our booklet ‘Overcoming Cancer Pain’

Ascites is when fluid builds up in the abdomen. Ascites can be caused by the cancer itself blocking lymph vessels or producing extra fluid. The build-up of fluid causes swelling and pressure in the abdomen. This can be uncomfortable and may make you feel breathless.

A procedure called paracentesis or ascitic tap can provide relief.

Water tablets (diuretics) are sometimes prescribed before and/or after paracentesis to slow down the build-up of fluid.

Chronic liver disease may cause toxic substances to build up in the blood, which can affect brain function, it can lead to confusion or disorientation. It is important for carers to be aware that these symptoms can develop. Hepatic encephalopathy can be frightening for carers and family members, but it can be controlled with medicines. Talk to the health care team if you are concerned.