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About Liver Cancer

Liver cancer is a disease where cancerous cells form in the tissues of the liver. There are two types of liver cancer:

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma
  • Cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer)

This page discusses hepatocellular carcinoma; read more about bile duct cancer.

Specialties & Treatments

The treatment or combination of treatments each patient has depends on the stage of the cancer, recommendations of the care team, and the patient’s wishes. These are the most common types of treatment for liver cancer:

  • Surveillance or “watchful waiting”
  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Liver transplant
  • Embolization therapy
  • Ablation therapy

Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Gastrointestinal (GI) Cancers Program provides comprehensive, compassionate, state-of-the-art care for cancers of the digestive system. Our experts treat and diagnose all types of GI cancers and conditions.

Learn more about types of cancer treatments and about cancer screenings.

Liver Transplant

Finding out you have liver cancer can be a devastating experience. When you are looking for answers, a liver transplant might be the treatment that works for you. Our Liver Transplant Oncology Program is specifically for patients who may need a different treatment path for their metastatic liver cancer.

Learn more about the Liver Transplant Oncology Program.

Image of the Liver

Anatomy of the liver. The liver is in the upper abdomen near the stomach, intestines, gallbladder, and pancreas. The liver has four lobes. Two lobes are on the front and two small lobes (not shown) are on the back of the liver.
Anatomy of the liver. The liver is in the upper abdomen near the stomach, intestines, gallbladder, and pancreas. The liver has four lobes. Two lobes are on the front and two small lobes (not shown) are on the back of the liver.

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Causes & Risk Factors

Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean you are sure to get cancer. It means your chances are higher than the average person’s. Talk with your doctor to learn more about your cancer risk. These are risk factors for liver cancer:

  • Infection with hepatitis B and/or hepatitis C
  • Cirrhosis of the liver caused by any of these things:
    • Hepatitis infection
    • Drinking large amounts of alcohol for several years
    • A long-lasting liver injury
  • Metabolic syndrome, a set of conditions that happen together, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, extra fat around the abdomen, high triglycerides, and low levels of high-density lipoproteins in the blood
  • Hemochromatosis, a condition where the body stores more iron than it needs in vital organs
  • Eating foods with aflatoxin, a poison that comes from fungus that can grow on improperly stored grains and nuts

Learn more about ways to prevent cancer and about family history and genetic counseling.

Diagnosis & Stages

Diagnosis of Liver Cancer

Doctors use these tests to diagnose liver cancer:

  • Physical exam and history: A health care provider examines your body for signs of disease. Your personal health habits, past illnesses and symptoms help guide the exam.
  • Laboratory tests: Through testing body tissues, blood, urine, or other substances in the body, your health care team can check to see how the liver and other organs are functioning. They can also look for substances that cells produce when cancer is present.
  • Ultrasound: This procedure uses high-energy sound waves to create a picture of the internal organs.
  • Imaging tests: Using dyes, x-rays, magnets, radio waves and/or computer technology, your health care provider can create detailed images of internal organs.
  • Biopsy: The health care provider removes cell or tissue samples so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.

Stages of Liver Cancer

Stages of cancer show whether cancer has spread within or around the liver or to other parts of the body. Cancer spreads in the body in three ways: through tissue, the lymph system, or the blood.

These are the stages used for liver cancer:

  • Stage 0: Very early
  • Stage A: Early
  • Stage B: Intermediate
  • Stage C: Advanced
  • Stage D: End-stage

When cancer spreads from where it started to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. These metastatic cancer cells are the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if liver cancer spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually liver cancer cells. The disease is metastatic liver cancer, not bone cancer.

Learn more about the stages of liver cancer from the National Cancer Institute.

Signs & Symptoms

These are signs of liver cancer:

  • A hard lump or discomfort on the right side just below the ribs
  • A swollen abdomen
  • Pain near the right shoulder blade or in the back
  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes, also called jaundice
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Unusual tiredness or weakness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite or feelings of fullness after eating a small meal
  • Weight loss for no known reason
  • Pale, chalky bowel movements and dark urine
  • Fever

Many other health problems can also cause these signs. If you have any of these signs, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Learn more about liver cancer from the National Cancer Institute.

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