Liver Cancer

General Information | Treatment Options | Screening
Prevention | Additional Resources

General Information
  • About
  • Risk Factors
  • Signs & Symptoms
  • Detection
  • Stages

General Information About Adult Primary Liver Cancer

Adult primary liver cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the liver.

The liver is one of the largest organs in the body. It has four lobes and fills the upper right side of the abdomen inside the rib cage. The liver has many important functions, including:

  • Filtering harmful substances from the blood so they can be passed from the body in stools and urine.
  • Making bile to help digest fats from food.
  • Storing glycogen (sugar), which the body uses for energy.

This summary refers to the treatment of primary liver cancer (cancer that begins in the liver). Treatment of metastatic liver cancer, which is cancer that begins in other parts of the body and spreads to the liver, is not discussed in this summary. Primary liver cancer can occur in both adults and children. Treatment for children, however, is different than treatment for adults. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Childhood Liver Cancer Treatment for more information.)

Having hepatitis or cirrhosis can affect the risk of developing adult primary liver cancer.

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. The following are possible risk factors for adult primary liver cancer:

  • Having hepatitis B and/or hepatitis C.
  • Having a close relative with both hepatitis and liver cancer.
  • Having cirrhosis.
  • Eating foods tainted with aflatoxin (poison from a fungus that can grow on foods, such as grains and nuts, that have not been stored properly).
Possible signs of adult primary liver cancer include a lump or pain on the right side.

These symptoms may be caused by swelling of the liver. These and other symptoms may be caused by adult primary liver cancer or by other conditions. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • A hard lump on the right side just below the rib cage.
  • Discomfort in the upper abdomen on the right side.
  • Pain around the right shoulder blade.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).
  • Unusual tiredness.
  • Nausea.
  • Loss of appetite.
Tests that examine the liver and the blood are used to detect (find) and diagnose adult primary liver cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Serum tumor marker test: A procedure in which a sample of blood is examined to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs, tissues, or tumor cells in the body. Certain substances are linked to specific types of cancer when found in increased levels in the blood. These are called tumor markers. An increased level of alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) in the blood may be a sign of liver cancer. Other cancers and certain noncancerous conditions, including cirrhosis and hepatitis, may also increase AFP levels.
  • Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
    • The number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
    • The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
    • The portion of the blood sample made up of red blood cells.
  • Laparoscopy: A surgical procedure to look at the organs inside the abdomen to check for signs of disease. Small incisions (cuts) are made in the wall of the abdomen and a laparoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted into one of the incisions. Other instruments may be inserted through the same or other incisions to perform procedures such as removing organs or taking tissue samples for biopsy.
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. The sample may be taken using a thin needle inserted into the liver during an x-ray or ultrasound. This is called a fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy. The biopsy may be done during a laparoscopy.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The picture can be printed to be looked at later.
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (the size of the tumor, whether it affects part or all of the liver, or has spread to other places in the body).
  • How well the liver is working.
  • The patient's general health, including whether there is cirrhosis of the liver.

Prognosis is also affected by alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) levels.

Stages of Adult Primary Liver Cancer

After adult primary liver cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the liver or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the liver or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Bone scan: A procedure to check if there are rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones and is detected by a scanner.
  • Doppler ultrasound: A type of ultrasound that uses differences in the ultrasound echoes to measure the speed and direction of blood flow.
There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

The following stages are used for adult primary liver cancer:

Stage I

In stage I, there is one tumor and it has not spread to nearby blood vessels.

Stage II

In stage II, one of the following is found:

  • one tumor that has spread to nearby blood vessels; or
  • more than one tumor, none of which is larger than 5 centimeters.

Stage III

Stage III is divided into Stage IIIA, IIIB, and IIIC.

  • In stage IIIA, one of the following is found:
    • more than one tumor larger than 5 centimeters; or
    • one tumor that has spread to a major branch of blood vessels near the liver.
  • In stage IIIB, there are one or more tumors of any size that have either:
    • spread to nearby organs other than the gallbladder; or
    • broken through the lining of the peritoneal cavity.
  • In stage IIIC, the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes.

Stage IV

In stage IV, cancer has spread beyond the liver to other places in the body, such as the bones or lungs. The tumors may be of any size and may also have spread to nearby blood vessels and/or lymph nodes.

For adult primary liver cancer, stages are also grouped according to how the cancer may be treated. There are 3 treatment groups:Localized resectable

The cancer is found in the liver only, has not spread, and can be completely removed by surgery.

Localized and locally advanced unresectable

The cancer is found in the liver only and has not spread, but cannot be completely removed by surgery.

Advanced

Cancer has spread throughout the liver or has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs and bone.

Recurrent Adult Primary Liver Cancer

Recurrent adult primary liver cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the liver or in other parts of the body.

Cancer information from the NCI PDQ service