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The Liver: One of the hardest working organs in the body

We've heard of liver damage, but how does this happen?

Posted by Steve Sung Kwon, MD on May 18, 2018


Every day it performs hundreds of functions, from processing what you eat and drink, to detoxifying any chemicals that enter your system to metabolizing medications you take, and so much more.

And yet, most of us never give this remarkable organ a second thought. That is, until something goes wrong.

During the month of May, we are dedicating time to the education of liver health through National Hepatitis Awareness Month. Hepatitis is an inflammatory condition of the liver that can lead to complications, including scarring of the liver, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.

Here, Dr. Steve Sung Kwon, surgical oncologist with Holy Name Medical Center, who specializes in the management of primary and secondary liver cancer, explains why it's so important to love your liver.

Dr. Kwon, where is the liver and what does it do?

Dr. Kwon:

The liver sits on the right side of your abdomen, behind your ribs. It's the largest internal organ in your body, and it's responsible for as many as 500 functions that include:

  • clearing the blood of waste products;
  • making, storing, and releasing sugars and fats;
  • producing important proteins needed for blood clotting;
  • aiding digestion and metabolism; and
  • storing and supplying vitamins, minerals, and iron, as needed.

We've heard of liver damage, but how does this happen?

Dr. Kwon:

Every day we may damage the liver as a result of poor diet, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, not exercising, and ignoring our overall health. Too much damage may result in inflammation of the liver or a condition known as hepatitis. There are five viruses known to cause hepatitis: hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E. The most common being: Hep B and Hep C.

What are the symptoms of hepatitis?

Dr. Kwon:

Signs and symptoms usually appear about one to four months after you've been infected and may include abdominal pain, dark urine, fever, and yellowing of the skin and the whites of your eyes. Because two out of three patients often are not aware they are infected with hepatitis B, screening is key, especially for those at greater risk.

Your risk of hepatitis B increases if you have unprotected sex with multiple sex partners or share needles during IV drug use. Studies show Asian-Americans are also at a higher risk for hepatitis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends screening for hepatitis C in adults born between 1945 and 1965, as baby boomers have been found to be five times more at risk for hep C than other adults. Screening is also recommended for those who are currently injecting drugs or have ever injected drugs, have HIV, or received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992.

How is hepatitis treated?

Dr. Kwon:

Hepatitis B is treated with medication, such as lamivudine and adefovir dipivoxil. Hepatitis C is treated with a combination of the medications peginterferon and ribovarin.

How is liver cancer treated?

Dr. Kwon:

There are several types of liver cancer, and treating the disease can sometimes be challenging. At the Patricia Lynch Cancer Center, here at Holy Name, our skilled oncologists use the most advanced diagnostics and treatment options, which may include the following minimally invasive procedures:

  • radioembolization, which works by cutting off the blood supply to tumors while killing malignant cells
  • radiofrequency ablation, which kills abnormal tissue while sparing healthy tissue
  • hemoembolization, which delivers a high dose of a radioactive chemotherapy drug directly into the liver

Holy Name, in collaboration with New York University, also has a Liver Center on its Teaneck campus, with a multi-disciplinary team of experts skilled in the surgical treatment of liver cancer and the medical management of patients who may be eligible for a liver transplant at NYU.

Is there anything we can do to help our liver function better?

Dr. Kwon:

A healthy diet and exercise can certainly help, as can making sure you take medicines correctly. Don't take too much, the wrong type, or mix medications as this can harm the liver. Never mix alcohol with other drugs and medications even if they're not taken at the same time. Tell your doctor about any over-the-counter medicines, supplements, and natural or herbal remedies that you use. Ask your doctor about vaccinations for hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

Holy Name offers free hepatitis C testing through the emergency department for baby boomers as well as free screenings for hepatitis B.

For more information on how to love your liver better or to schedule an appointment with the Liver Center, please call 201-541-5900.