Coping With Liver Cancer

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If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with liver cancer, try stepping back for a moment to reflect on your thoughts, emotions, and personal goals surrounding cancer care and comfort.

As you think more deeply about your cancer diagnosis, consider how strategies like emotional support and in-depth knowledge can help you build resiliency and thus cope healthily during this difficult time.

Emotional

Feeling vulnerable, fearful, sad, anxious, angry, and powerless are common and normal feelings in people with liver cancer.

This is because you (or your loved one) are undergoing a major life change. Not only are you putting many aspects of your life on hold so you can undergo cancer care, but you are also embarking on an emotional rollercoaster trying to understand why this is happening to you and what the future holds.

While it's important to reach out for emotional support during your liver cancer journey, be sure to notify your liver cancer care team right away if you or your loved one's distress becomes excessive. For example, if your worry is so overwhelming that you are having problems sleeping, eating, or focusing on tasks at home, call your doctor or nurse.

Other symptoms of excessive distress include:

  • Feeling so panicked or sad that you are not adhering to treatment
  • Thinking about your cancer and/or death all the time or feeling hopeless or despaired
  • Acting unusually angry, irritable, or moody
  • Feeling worthless or having thoughts of suicide

The good news is that there are a number of therapies available to help manage psychological distress, including medication and non-medication options.

Common non-medication options include undergoing talk therapy like cognitive-behavioral therapy and behavioral interventions like relaxation, guided imagery, and mindful meditation. Yoga and tai chi may also help reduce stress, which can improve your overwell mood and well-being.

If your doctor and you decide taking medication is a sensible next step, be aware that the type of medication you take will need to be carefully selected based on your current liver function.

Physical

You may or may not experience symptoms from your liver cancer, depending on when it was diagnosed and if you have long-term liver disease. Regardless, treating liver cancer will entail enduring some physical struggles.

Pain

A major quality of life issue in cancer care is pain. A person with liver cancer may experience abdominal pain from the cancer itself as well as from their cancer treatments (for example, from surgery).

Treating pain in a person with liver cancer and underlying chronic liver disease can be a bit tricky, as many pain medications, like those that contain acetaminophen (Tylenol), can further damage the liver. Be assured, though, that your pain can be well-controlled. It may take some extra thought and planning when it comes to choosing and dosing pain medications, but you can obtain relief and feel comfortable.

With that, if your pain is severe and/or persistent, be sure to communicate this with your cancer care team.

Fatigue

Fatigue is another challenging symptom of liver cancer, often stemming from the cancer itself as well as from the therapies used to treat it.

Combating your fatigue may include taking short naps throughout the day and practicing energy conservation strategies (for example, saving your energy for pleasurable activities while asking a family member or friend to help with tiresome household chores).

Proper nutrition and daily exercise or yoga can also help ease fatigue. Talk with your doctor about a good diet and exercise plan that fits your unique needs and lifestyle.

Treatment Side Effects

While undergoing treatment for your liver cancer (for example, surgery to remove the cancer or undergoing a liver transplant), it's normal to feel weak and worn out for some time. Taking it easy, resting frequently, and undergoing physical therapy are important steps to getting your strength back and recovering properly.

In addition, be sure to follow your doctor's instructions about when to seek medical attention (for example, if you develop a fever, notice redness or discharge at your surgery site, or develop signs of liver failure like jaundice).

Lastly, it's essential to understand the potential side effects of each of your treatments. This knowledge can empower you to be more proactive in your care.

One classic example involves the medication Nexavar (sorafenib) which may be used to treat people with advanced liver cancer. Since sorafenib may cause a red, peeling rash on the hands and feet, frequent moisturization before and during treatment is important.

Social

Many people find comfort in seeking out others who also have cancer or who have survived cancer.

Examples of support groups you may consider include:

  • American Cancer Society: Offers a variety of support programs, like the Patient Navigator Program (one-on-one support), lodging and transportation programs, and a free personal care support website (called mylifeline.org).
  • American Liver Foundation: Offers online, telephone, and in person support groups throughout the United States, as well as advocacy resources and educational brochures and webinars.
  • CancerCare: Offers online and face-to-face support groups with oncology social workers.
  • Cancer Support Community: Offers a toll-free cancer support hotline or a live web chat.

In addition to a support group, it's a good idea to reach out to and spend time with loved ones.

Remember to take time for and be kind to yourself. A treat, like a savory dinner out or a peaceful nap, can boost your mood and reduce your stress.

Practical

One of the most complex elements of managing liver cancer is that this type of cancer is often diagnosed late, which means a person has to make hard treatment decisions while also considering their quality of life.

This is why it's important to inform your doctor about how you feel after each and every treatment. Be candid and do not be afraid to ask hard questions, like what are the potential downsides of a therapy, or what would happen if you forewent a therapy.

Finally, close follow-up with your doctor is important both during and after cancer treatment. During follow-up visits, your doctor will review whether you have any symptoms that indicate that your cancer may have returned. He will also order blood and imaging tests.

Caring for a Loved One With Liver Cancer
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