This factsheet is for people who have liver cancer, or who would like information about it.
Primary liver cancer is an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells that start in your liver.
Cancer that starts in your liver is called primary liver cancer. It’s quite rare in the UK with about 3,400 people diagnosed with primary liver cancer each year.
Most people in the UK that have been diagnosed with tumours in the liver, will have secondary liver cancer. This means that the tumour has spread from another part of your body, such as your bowel, breast or lungs. The spread of cancer is called metastasis. It’s also possible for cancerous tumours to grow through your liver and spread to other parts of your body, where they may grow and form secondary tumours.
Tumours can be either benign or malignant. Benign tumours stay in the liver and don’t spread to other parts of your body. These aren’t cancerous and are rarely life-threatening. Malignant tumours are cells that grow uncontrollably and can spread to other parts of your body and invade healthy tissue. Cancer is the name given to a malignant tumour.
This factsheet will concentrate on primary liver cancer.
Your liver is a large organ, found beneath your right lung, just under your ribcage. It’s divided into two sections, called lobes.
Your liver carries out many important jobs, including:
It can also repair itself and still functions when much of it’s damaged.
There are four main types of primary liver cancer.
Primary liver cancer affects people in different ways. Most of the time there are no symptoms in the early stages of primary liver cancer because your liver can still function when only a part of it’s working. Later symptoms may include:
These symptoms aren’t always caused by liver cancer but if you have any of them, see your GP.
Primary liver cancer is usually caused by cirrhosis. This is scarring of your liver and poor liver function. Drinking too much alcohol is the most common cause of liver cirrhosis in the UK. It can also be caused by infections, such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
Other factors that may put you more at risk of developing liver cancer include:
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.
Your GP will refer you to a hospital where you will have several tests to determine if you have liver cancer and what stage the cancer is at. The tests will also show if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body.
You may have one or more of the following tests.
The treatment you have will depend on how advanced your cancer is and your general health. Treatments will try to either:
Your treatment will also depend on where the cancer is and whether it has spread to other areas.
Surgery is the only treatment that offers a chance of curing your liver cancer. Surgery isn’t always possible and will depend on the size and position of your tumour and if the cancer has already spread to other parts of your body. If your liver is severely damaged by cirrhosis, it may not be safe to have surgery. Only a small number of people with liver cancer will be able to have surgery.
There are a number of surgery options. Some examples are listed below.
Ablation means to remove or destroy. There are two different ways of ablating a tumour in your liver.
Chemotherapy involves using anti-cancer medicines to shrink the tumour and reduce your symptoms. Liver cancer doesn’t usually respond well to chemotherapy so is not often used.
Chemoembolisation may be more effective than chemotherapy. Chemotherapy medicines are mixed with a substance called lipiodol, which helps them stay in your liver for longer, increasing their effectiveness. Sometimes, your doctor will also inject a gel or tiny plastic beads to block the blood flow to the tumour. This should limit the oxygen supply and kill the tumour cells.
This treatment may be possible if you can’t have surgery. Liquid nitrogen is placed on the tissue around your tumour to freeze and destroy the cancer.
A stent is a small mesh tube. Stents are sometimes inserted if you have cancer in your bile ducts that is causing a blockage, or if pressure from a tumour closes your bile duct. The stent is inserted into your duct to allow bile to flow through.
Radiotherapy isn’t often used to treat primary liver cancer as radiation can damage your healthy liver cells.
Produced by Dylan Merkett, Bupa Health Information Team, April 2012.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
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