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This Was the First Sign That David Bowie Had Cancer

This is what liver cancer feels like.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

David Bowie passed away on January 10, 2016 after an 18-month battle with liver cancer. He was 69 years old. "Several types of cancer can form in the liver," says Sean Cleary, MD. "The most common type of liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma, which begins in the main type of liver cell (hepatocyte). Other types of liver cancer, such as intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma and hepatoblastoma, are much less common." Here are five common symptoms of liver cancer—including what Bowie first noticed. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Weight Loss

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Unexplained weight loss is a common symptom of liver cancer—something Bowie even joked about to his loved ones. "[Bowie] faced his illness with enormous courage, dignity, grace and customary humor – even in dire circumstances," said his close friend, actor Gary Oldman. "When he wrote to tell me the bad news, he added, 'The good news is I've got my cheekbones back.'" 




Jaundice could be a sign of high bilirubin levels, when bile ducts that connect the pancreas to the liver become blocked. "Jaundice doesn't automatically mean that you have cancer," says Jason A. Castellanos, MD, MS, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. "But no matter what's behind the jaundice, the patient needs to have a thorough workup and get their bilirubin levels back to normal. The bottom line is, it's crucial to identify the cause of jaundice quickly."


Upper Abdominal Pain

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Upper abdominal pain could be a sign of liver cancer, especially if it's located on the right side of the body. "Liver itself does not have nerve tissue, however a thin layer of envelope covering the liver called Glissonean capsule contains lots of nerve fibers," says Iswanto Sucandy, MD. "Abdominal pain originates from a mechanical stretch of these nerve fibers. Therefore, when a liver tumor enlarges and subsequently creates pressure or stretches to the Glissonean capsule, abdominal pain is then reported. It usually feels like persistent dull ache, not related to food intake, and it can radiate to the right back along the 'bra line' for woman. Liver tumors which are located close to the capsule (subcapsular) are more likely to cause abdominal pain, while deeply located tumors are less likely to cause pain."




Fatigue could be a sign of liver cancer, experts say. "Many people with secondary liver cancer experience fatigue," according to the Cancer Council of New South Wales. "This is different to feeling tired as it doesn't always go away with rest or sleep. The fatigue may be a side effect of treatment or caused by the cancer itself.


Right Shoulder Pain

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"This complaint is commonly reported by patients with a liver cancer/liver tumor facing or pushing against the right diaphragm," says Dr. Sucandy. "The phrenic vein carries referred pain impulse from the right diaphragm to the right shoulder area. Anything that irritates the right diaphragm can cause right shoulder pain, such as sub-diaphragmatic infection, inflammation, abscess, trauma, and liver tumor. Many patients present to a liver surgeon with a normal right shoulder x-ray with no evidence of bony fracture."

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan
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