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Liver Cancer : Symptoms
Western Medicine Chinese Medicine

One of the problems with detecting liver cancer is that it is often silent. It may not cause any symptoms likely to alert the sufferer that he or she may have cancer.

When there are symptoms, the most common ones are:

Pain: usually more discomfort felt in the upper right side and middle of the belly. Sometimes pain caused by liver cancer can also be felt around the right shoulder blade.
Abdominal fullness
Jaundice: yellow eyes and skin, pale stools and very dark (tea-colored) urine.

At a very late stage, there may be symptoms of blood and metabolism disorders caused by liver failure.

These include:

Dizziness, headaches and fainting caused by low blood sugar.
Bleeding and bruising for no reason.
Mental confusion.


Individuals who are suffering from liver cancer usually develop a spleen deficiency first. In TCM, the spleen is largely responsible for the body's digestive functions, which includes transforming water and nutrients into vital energy or qi, which in turn, is used by the body to carry out its daily functions. If liquids are unable to be transformed or digested properly by the spleen, dampness accumulates. When the dampness accumulates without being transformed into qi, it will turn into heat, which damages the body and makes a person sick. Sometimes when the dampness accumulates in the abdomen, abdominal distention will occur.

If the spleen deficiency remains uncontrolled, qi movement becomes stagnant. Qi commands the blood so when qi stagnation persists, blood stasis (lack of smooth blood flow) is the result. When this condition continues to be uncontrolled for a long time, individuals develop excessive heat, which typically occurs in the stomach. It is often referred to as the heat of yang ming; because, the stomach is closely associated with the stomach meridian. When the liver cancer progresses to the late stage, the heat will exhaust the physiological fluids in the body leading to a condition known as yin deficiency. (See below).

Depending on the stage of the liver cancer, individuals will show one or more of the disharmony patterns listed below. The disharmony patterns can progress to other patterns and deficiencies not listed here if the conditions cannot be reversed back to healthy body functions.

Click here to see Disharmony Pattern Symptoms

Types of Disharmony Patterns:

a) Spleen deficiency
As mentioned before, the spleen is important for transformation of nutrients and water. A deficiency can lead to an accumulation of unhealthy dampness, triggering weight loss, malaise, poor appetite and loose stools. Generally, the tongue does not appear red and the pulse feels soft or soggy, which are signs of dampness.

b) Stagnation of Qi
When qi becomes stagnant, the qi movement in the body will be disturbed, leading to a feeling of fullness in the upper abdomen. Individuals may have a poor appetite and flatulence (gas). With this condition, the pulse may be wiry or smooth. The tongue will have a thin and greasy coating and usually does not appear red.

c) Influence of dampness and heat
Under the influence of heat, which belongs to yang evils, individuals may have irregular fevers and dark urine. As a result of dampness and heat in the liver and gall bladder, the normal regulation of bile will be affected. Bile is made in the liver and stored in the gallbladder where it is then excreted into the intestines to digest food. In TCM, jaundice occurs when the bile is "spilt over" or backed up into the liver. Since heat causes these problems, the pulse feels rapid and smooth if dampness is present. The tongue usually appears red with a yellow and greasy coating, also indicating heat and dampness in the body.

d) Excessive heat
With excessive heat, individuals may develop a fever with varying temperatures. Before developing a fever, some individuals may experience an aversion to feeling cold. Those who have a greater aversion to cold usually develop a higher temperature. For individuals with liver problems, the fever comes on at regular and particular times, usually in the afternoon, and it goes away without treatment. However, there are some cases, where individuals have sustained fevers. Sweating occurs once the fever has broken. With excessive heat, the pulse usually feels rapid and smooth, and the tongue may appear dry. Sometimes individuals without a fever will be classified as having excessive heat because of a hot feeling in the liver region.

e) Blood stasis
Blood stasis occurs when there is not a smooth flow of blood in a particular area of the body. Individuals with liver cancer who have blood stasis experience sharp pain in the liver region. The pain will be aggravated when the affected area is pressed, and it is usually fixed in a certain position. The pulse feels thin and choppy, and the tongue will appear dark with purple spots.

f) Yin deficiency
In TCM, material and fluid-like substances belong to yin. If a person is yin deficient, he or she will have a dry mouth and thin pulse. Since yin and yang always aim to be in balance, a yin deficiency can lead to a relative excess of yang. It is relative; because, even though the symptoms look like an excess problem, they originate from a deficiency and therefore need to be treated as a yin deficiency and not a yang excess. Symptoms of a relative excessive yang include irritability, a rapid pulse and a red tongue. Another symptom of yin deficiency is a tongue that has a shiny or peeled appearance if the tongue does not have a coating present.

Symptoms Associated with Liver Cancer:
Early stage liver cancer can be difficult to detect because there are few obvious symptoms. When the disease progresses to the intermediate and late stages, symptoms will become more prominent and noticeable.

General symptoms:
1. Pain in the "liver" region (the flank and upper abdomen)
There are mainly two types of pain; dull and sharp. Sharp pain can be aggravated by pressure. It is usually caused by blood stasis (when blood is unable to flow smoothly), which is considered an excessive type disharmony. In TCM, an excessive type disharmony usually refers to a disharmony pattern caused by an excess of evils in the body. (These excesses are usually external forces outside the body that invade it and cause disease. This includes things such as heat, wind, dampness, cold and dryness.) In order to treat this disharmony, the evils need to be removed. If the disharmony were a deficiency type, the treatment would aim to replenish the deficient aspect instead of removing the evils. On the other hand, dull pain is caused by stagnant qi. Smooth flow of qi and blood are necessary for the body to function properly. If disharmony affects their flow, health problems will occur. Pain is a symptom of poor flow of qi and/or blood.

2. Mass in the upper abdomen
In TCM, this type of mass, known as "zheng" or an "accumulation," is described in the definition section. There are several theories about how "zheng" develops. One theory is that it is caused by stagnant qi or blood stasis. Another theory is that it results from a spleen deficiency.

3. Other common symptoms
As a result of a spleen deficiency, individuals with liver cancer can feel general sluggishness because the spleen is responsible for "ruling" the four limbs. The spleen is also responsible for transforming nutrients and water into qi or vital energy for the body. Without healthy transformation, dampness accumulates in the body and causes many types of health problems. For example, accumulated dampness in the large intestine will lead to symptoms of diarrhea and nausea.

Spleen deficiency is often associated with abdominal distention. Being an earth element, the spleen should be able to contain and control the direction of water flow in the body. When spleen disharmony occurs, water is not controlled properly and fills up the abdomen resulting in abdominal distention. In western medicine, the symptom is known as ascites.

Abdominal distention located in the upper abdomen is known as "pi man," which means feeling fullness and oppression. Both oppression and fullness are mainly caused by stagnation of qi flow in the chest. If distention of the whole abdomen occurs, the condition is known as "gu zhang." A spleen deficiency rather than improper qi flow mainly cause "gu zhang."