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Quick Facts

Liver Cancer

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

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Your liver is a football-sized organ on the right side of your belly, just below your ribs. It helps you digest food and makes substances that help your body work.

What is liver cancer?

There are 2 kinds of liver cancer:

  • Primary liver cancer: Cancer that started in your liver

  • Metastatic liver cancer: Cancer that started in another organ and spread (metastasized) to your liver

The most common primary liver cancer in adults is:

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma (hepatoma)

Other types of primary liver cancer are uncommon or rare.

Many cancers can spread (metastasize) to the liver. The most common ones are cancers of the colon, breast, lung, and pancreas. Metastatic liver cancer is more common than primary liver cancer.

If not treated, liver cancers grow and spread and keep the liver from functioning normally. Cancers that start in other organs can spread to the liver and are treated differently from primary liver cancers.

View of the Liver and Gallbadder

What causes liver cancer?

Liver cancer is more likely to happen in people who:

  • Had hepatitis B or C for a long time

  • Drink too much alcohol

  • Have a lot of fat or scar tissue in their liver

  • Have diabetes

  • Have too much iron in their body

  • Have been exposed to certain molds or chemicals

What are the symptoms of liver cancer?

At first, liver cancer may cause no symptoms, but later you can:

  • Lose weight

  • Not feel hungry

  • Feel weak and tired

Other symptoms may include:

  • Jaundice (when your skin and the whites of your eyes look yellow)

  • Uncomfortable feeling in your belly

  • Swollen belly

  • Nausea and vomiting

Many other health problems have the same kinds of symptoms, so you may not find out you have liver cancer for a long time.

How can doctors tell if I have liver cancer?

Doctors may do:

  • Blood tests

  • Imaging tests of your belly, such as ultrasound, CT scan or MRI (tests that create detailed pictures of your liver and other organs inside your body)

  • Liver biopsy (putting a needle through your skin into your liver to take out a small piece of tissue to look at under a microscope)

  • Surgery to remove a bigger piece of tissue to examine

How do doctors treat liver cancer?

Primary liver cancer

If the cancer is found early, doctors may remove it with surgery. Much less often, they take out the whole liver and replace it with a piece of healthy liver from another person (liver transplantation).

Other treatments for primary liver cancer include:

  • Medicines

  • Heating or freezing the tumor with probes passed through the skin into the tumor

  • Injecting medicines or alcohol into the tumor

  • Targeting powerful x-rays at the tumor (radiation therapy)

Liver cancer is often found after it has grown and spread, and sometimes these treatments don’t work well. In such cases, medicines and other treatments are given to relieve pain and other symptoms.

Metastatic liver cancer

It doesn't usually help to do surgery to remove metastatic liver cancer. Your doctor will likely recommend chemotherapy. The chemotherapy is usually given in your veins (IV). Sometimes the doctor will put a long IV tube up an artery in your leg and into your liver. That IV can deliver chemotherapy right to the tumor.

How can I prevent liver cancer?

You can lower the risk of getting primary liver cancer by:

  • Getting tested for hepatitis B and C and taking medicine to treat it

  • Not drinking too much alcohol

  • Watching your weight

If you have hepatitis B or C or a lot of scarring in the liver (cirrhosis), your doctor may do blood tests and ultrasound to check for liver cancer even if you have no symptoms.

Where can I find more information about liver cancer?

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