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What is liver cancer?

There are two main types of primary liver cancer (cancer that starts in the liver): Hepatoma (also called hepatocellular carcinoma) and billiary tree cancer, which includes, bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) and gall bladder cancer.

Secondary liver cancer is cancer that develops elsewhere in the body and then spreads to the liver. This is also known as metastatic cancer.

How do you get liver cancer?

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is normally caused by cirrhosis which itself can be caused by a variety of liver diseases. Having cirrhosis does not mean that you will automatically develop HCC but anyone with cirrhosis should receive regular check-ups to test for HCC.

The causes of biliary tree cancer are not well established but it is more common amongst people with a condition called primary sclerosing cholangitis.


It is common for there to be no obvious symptoms during the early stages of liver cancer. Possible early symptoms can include:

  • abdominal pain
  • loss of appetite
  • feeling and being sick
  • weight loss
  • feeling tired all the time
  • joint and muscle aches and pain
  • itchy skin

As the cancer progresses more serious symptoms may occur. If any of the following symptoms are experienced, medical advice should be sought immediately.

  • jaundice (yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin)
  • fever with high temperatures and shivers
  • vomiting blood
  • very dark or black tarry stools


A physician will require blood tests and possibly an abdominal ultrasound scan. If the results of these tests indicate that a tumor may be present a referral will be made to a specialist who can arrange for further blood tests and imaging scans.


Treatment will vary depending upon the type of cancer but it may include:

  • Liver resection – where the part of the liver that contains the tumor is surgically removed. Following surgery the liver will grow back to its original size.
  • Ablation – where a needle is inserted into the tumor to deliver a means of destroying it such as high-frequency electrical current
  • Liver transplantation
  • Chemotherapy

Find support and information

Get help through support groups and access helpful resources and guides to support you or a family member through treatment. In the UK Macmillan Cancer Support also provides a free helpline.