Liver cancer

To help you understand what is happening when you have liver cancer, it helps to know how your body works normally. Our bodies are made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow and multiply when the body needs them and die out when the body does not need them.

Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow whether or not they are needed. Liver cancer is cancer that starts in the cells of the liver. Cancer that begins in the liver cells is called primary liver cancer. This cancer is uncommon in the United States. It is the most common cancer in many African and East Asian countries.

Liver cancer often starts in one location and then tends to develop in several parts of the liver over time. When the cancer does spread outside of the liver, it may move to the tissues close to the liver and to the diaphragm, the muscle that separates the lungs from the abdomen. It is less common for liver cancer to spread to lymph nodes.

Primary liver cancer is not the same as cancers that have started somewhere else in the body and have then spread to the liver. These are called liver metastases. Cancer that starts in other places, such as the colon, breast, or lung, and then spreads to the liver is called secondary liver cancer. Almost all other cancers, if they spread, can spread to the liver. Secondary liver cancer is more common in the United States than primary liver cancer. Cancer that has spread to the liver is treated like the original cancer. For instance, lung cancer that has metastasized to the liver is treated like lung cancer.

Types of liver cancer include:

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma. This is the most common liver cancer. It is also called hepatoma. About four out of every five liver cancers are of this type. This type of cancer starts in the main liver cells called hepatocytes.

  • Cholangiocarcinoma. About 10 to 20 percent of all liver cancers are cholangiocarcinomas. This type of liver cancer starts in the bile ducts, which are specialized cells that allow the liver to release bile into the gallbladder and intestines during digestion.

  • Mixed hepatocellular carcinoma and cholangiocarcinoma.

  • Hepatoblastoma. Hepatoblastoma is a rare liver cancer usually found in children.

  • Angiosarcoma. Angiosarcoma is another uncommon form of liver cancer that begins in blood vessels inside the liver.

  • Hemangioendothelioma.


Each type of treatment for liver cancer has a different goal. Here is a list of main treatments and their goals for liver cancer. They are listed in order from the most to least common. You may have more than one of these treatments:

  • Surgery. The goal of surgery is to remove the whole tumor from the liver yet leave as much of the healthy liver as possible intact.

  • Chemotherapy. The goal of chemotherapy is to shrink the liver cancer and reduce the chance that the cancer will spread to other parts of the body. You may have it after surgery to reduce this chance. After surgery, it is called adjuvant chemotherapy. It may also be used alone to treat the cancer, especially if it has spread to other areas. Chemotherapy is rarely used for liver cancer.

  • Radiation therapy. The goal of radiation is to kill cancer cells using X-rays. This treatment may be used to shrink a tumor before surgery. Or you may have it after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. If you cannot have surgery, you may have radiation alone to treat pain and other symptoms of the cancer with external-beam radiation therapy, or radioembolization (radioactive beads).

  • Targeted therapy. Sorafenib (nexavar) is the first targeted therapy approved for liver cancer after clinical trials demonstrated greater benefit and less toxicity than chemotherapy trials. It is one of a new class of drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors and is taken by mouth.  

There are also other types of treatments for liver cancer, including cryotherapy, ethanol ablation, radiofrequency ablation, intra-arterial chemoembolization, and liver transplantation. Doctors are always finding new ways to treat liver cancer. These new methods are tested in clinical trials. Before beginning treatment, ask your doctor about any clinical trials you should consider.

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Treatments for Liver cancer

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Symptoms and Screenings for Liver cancer

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Causes and Preventions for Liver cancer

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Education and Resources for Liver cancer

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Support groups for Liver cancer

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Learn More about Liver cancer

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