Liver Cancer

What is liver cancer?

The liver is the largest organ inside the body. 1

The liver does many important jobs. These include:

  • breaking down drugs and alcohol, and getting rid of toxins
  • producing bile to help dissolve fat so it can be easily digested
  • storing and releasing sugars (glucose) as needed storing nutrients
  • making proteins to help blood clot and to balance fluid in the body.

Liver cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow uncontrollably in the liver, forming a cancerous tumour. There are many different types of primary liver cancer, which include:2

  • hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) or hepatoma, is the most common type of primary liver cancer and it starts in the main cell type in the liver, the hepatocytes
  • cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer, starts in the cells lining the bile ducts (which connect the liver to the bowel and gall bladder)
  • angiosarcoma, which starts in the blood vessels. This is a rare type of liver cancer that is more likely to occur in people over 70.

Secondary cancer in the liver is a cancer that started in another part of the body but has now spread (metastasised) to the liver. 4

Stages of liver cancer

The Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer (BCLC) system is often used to stage primary liver cancer (HCC). 1

The TNM system is also used to stage liver cancer, and it helps doctors understand what your cancer looks like. TNM stands for:

  • Tumour – the degree to which the tumour has affected other tissue.
  • Node – is a measure of whether lymph nodes have been affected.
  • Metastasis – the degree to which the cancer has spread to other organs of the body.

Signs and symptoms of liver cancer

Liver cancer often doesn’t cause any symptoms in the early stages. Symptoms are more likely to appear as the cancer grows or becomes advanced. 1

Symptoms may include:

Weakness and tiredness


in the upper right side of the abdomen

Swelling of the abdomen

and/or severe pain

Appetite loss

and feeling sick

Weight loss

Yellowing skin

and eyes

Pale bowel motions


These symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, but if you are concerned please speak with your doctor.

Treatment for liver cancer

Frequently asked questions

How common is liver cancer?

More than 800 000 people are diagnosed with liver cancer each year throughout the world. Liver cancer is also a leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, accounting for more than 700 000 deaths each year.5

HCC most often develops in people with underlying liver disease caused by obesity, excessive alcohol consumption or hepatitis B or C infection. It is common in Asia, the Pacific Islands and Africa due to high rates of hepatitis B infection.

How is liver cancer diagnosed?

Liver cancer diagnosis involves a number of tests, including:

  • Ultrasound, which looks for tumours in the liver
  • CT scan, where images are used to provide precise information on the size and position of any tumours
  • MRI scan
  • Angiography, which shows the arteries that supply blood to a liver cancer
  • Laparoscopy
  • Biopsy, which involves removing tissue from the tumour to examine.

Further tests may also be required, often to see if the cancer has spread beyond the liver.

What are the risk factors for liver cancer?

A risk factor is any factor that is associated with an increased chance of developing a health condition, such as liver cancer. 3

Although the causes of liver cancer are not fully understood, there are several factors associated with the risk of developing the disease. These factors include:2,3

  • chronic hepatitis B infection
  • chronic hepatitis C infection
  • a family history of both hepatitis B and liver cancer
  • cirrhosis of the liver
  • haemochromatosis
  • smoking tobacco
  • high alcohol consumption
  • exposure to certain chemicals
  • obesity

It should be noted that having one or more risk factors does not mean a person will develop liver cancer. Many people have at least one risk factor but will never develop liver cancer, while others with liver cancer may have had no known risk factors. 3


For a full list of references, click here.
  1. Cancer Council. (2019). Understanding Liver Cancer: A guide for people affected by primary liver cancer or secondary cancer in the liver (2018). Retrieved on 03 October 2019 from
  2. Cancer Council. (2019). Liver Cancer. Retrieved on 03 October 2019 from
  3. Cancer Australia. (2019). What are the risk factors for liver cancer? Retrieved on 03 October 2019 from
  4. Cancer Council Victoria. (2019). Liver Cancer. Retrieved on 01 October 2019 from
  5. American Cancer Society. (2019). Key Statistics about Liver Cancer. Retrieved on 03 October 2019 from

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