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Pediatric Hepatocellular Carcinoma Clinical Presentation

  • Author: Paulette Mehta, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Max J Coppes, MD, PhD, MBA  more...
Updated: Nov 05, 2015


Elements to ascertain include a prior history of hepatitis B or hepatitis C, chronic cirrhosis, or other diseases that tend to induce liver dysfunction. Co-infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) may further enhance a patient's risk for developing hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Most patients complain of abdominal pain, weight loss, and diminished appetite. In patients with a history of chronic liver disease, a change in routine symptoms may indicate the presence of a liver tumor.

Most patients with hepatocellular carcinoma present with a slowly enlarging, right upper-quadrant mass that may be found during a routine physical examination, brought to medical attention by the patient, or discovered by the patient's parents. Many children also experience localized pain, nausea, vomiting, and weight loss. Nearly 25% of patients present with jaundice.

In adults, chronic hepatitis secondary to alcohol exposure, infection with hepatitis, and hereditary hemochromatosis are predisposing factors. Aflatoxins and other environmental factors also are likely to play a role in the pathogenesis in adults. In comparison, children are far more likely to have inherited errors of metabolism, such as tyrosinemia or urea cycle enzymopathies. Liver diseases that cause cirrhosis increase risk for developing hepatocellular carcinoma (eg, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency).

Children with biliary atresia, chronic cholestasis, or glycogen-storage diseases are at increased risk. Symptoms can be masked in children with preexisting hepatic diseases, and, accordingly, a change in a chronic disease pattern merits careful consideration for the possibility of a new malignancy.



The physical examination often reveals abnormalities attributable to a hepatic tumor. In advanced cases, or when the primary tumor is large, the liver may be palpable below the right costal margin. In addition, deep palpation often reveals pain, especially over the location of the liver. Scleral icterus and other signs of jaundice are frequent. The patient's history also may indicate weight loss, the extent of which may be observed during the examination. In patients in whom metastatic disease to the lungs is in question, percussion of the lungs may reveal a difference in density, suggesting a pleural effusion. Other painful sites discovered on the examination should lead to radiographic imaging to determine the extent of malignant spread. This is particularly true for bone pain at presentation.



Although no cause has been clearly elucidated, the risk factors for children and adolescents include a history of hepatitis B or C, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, hereditary tyrosinemia, Gaucher disease, congenital biliary atresia, urea cycle defects, severe iron overload (as occurs with thalassemia or sickle cell disease requiring chronic blood transfusion), or other forms of chronic cirrhosis or liver dysfunction. Acquired hepatitis C from blood product transfusions is an important risk factor because the risk of hepatocellular carcinoma in patients with chronic hepatitis C and cirrhosis is highest (2-8% per year).

In areas of the world where hepatitis B or C are endemic, the incidence is likely to be proportionally increased in children and adolescents.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Paulette Mehta, MD, MPH Professor, Division of Hematology/Oncology and Palliative Care and Hospice Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, University Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Central Arkansas Veterans Hospital System

Paulette Mehta, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation, American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Society of Hematology, Association of VA Hematology/Oncology, National Cancer Institute

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Mary L Windle, PharmD Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Steven K Bergstrom, MD Department of Pediatrics, Division of Hematology-Oncology, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center of Oakland

Steven K Bergstrom, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, Children's Oncology Group, American Society of Clinical Oncology, International Society for Experimental Hematology, American Society of Hematology, American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Max J Coppes, MD, PhD, MBA Executive Vice President, Chief Medical and Academic Officer, Renown Heath

Max J Coppes, MD, PhD, MBA is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Healthcare Executives, American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, Society for Pediatric Research

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Stephan A Grupp, MD, PhD Director, Stem Cell Biology Program, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Oncology, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Stephan A Grupp, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for Cancer Research, Society for Pediatric Research, American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation, American Society of Hematology, American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Girindra G Raval, MD Staff Physician, Jefferson Regional Medical Center

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Stuart S Winter, MD Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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