Liver cancer 

Introduction 

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Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015

Primary and secondary liver cancer

Primary liver cancer is cancer that begins inside the liver.

Secondary liver cancer is cancer that starts in another part of the body, such as the bowel, before spreading to the liver.

The Macmillan Cancer Support website has more information about secondary liver cancer.

The global impact of liver cancer

Liver cancer is rare in England, but widespread in other parts of the world. In global terms, liver cancer is the fifth most common type of cancer and the third most common cause of cancer-related death.

Four out of every five cases of liver cancer occur in the developing world. The areas of the world that have the highest rates of liver cancer are:

  • western and central Africa
  • south east Asia, Mongolia and China – just over half of all cases of liver cancer occur in China

There are two risk factors for liver cancer that explain this unusual geographical concentration of cases:

  • hepatitis B – a viral infection particularly common in certain parts of Africa and Asia
  • aflatoxin – a poisonous substance that can contaminate food found in Africa and east Asia

Primary liver cancer is a rare but serious type of cancer that begins in the liver. It mostly affects older people.

Symptoms are often vague and don't appear until the cancer is at an advanced stage. They include:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • vomiting
  • tiredness
  • jaundice – yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes

Read more about the symptoms of liver cancer.

The liver

The liver is one of the most complex organs in the human body. It performs more than 500 functions. Some of the liver’s most important functions include:

  • digesting proteins and fats
  • removing toxins (poisons) from the body
  • helping to control blood clotting (thickening)
  • releasing bile, a liquid that breaks down fats and aids digestion

Liver cancer is a serious condition because it can disrupt these functions or cause them to fail completely.

Why does liver cancer happen?

Although the exact cause of liver cancer is unknown, it is thought to be related to damage to the liver, such as cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis can be caused by:

It is also believed that obesity may increase the risk of liver cancer due to its links with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Read more about the causes of liver cancer.

How common is liver cancer?

Liver cancer is rare in England, but much more common in other parts of the world.

In the UK, almost 4000 new cases of liver cancer are diagnosed each year. Around 60% of cases affect men and 40% affect women. The number of people affected by liver cancer rises sharply with age, about 70% of cases involve people 65 years of age or older.

Over the past few decades, rates of liver cancer in the UK have risen sharply as a result of  increased levels of alcohol misuse and obesity. 

Diagnosis and screening

Liver cancer is usually diagnosed after a consultation with a GP and a referral to a hospital specialist for further tests.

However, regular check-ups for liver cancer (known as ‘surveillance’) are recommended for people known to have a high risk of developing the condition, such as those with a confirmed hepatitis C infection or those who have had cirrhosis.

If you are in a high-risk group for developing liver cancer, having regular check-ups will help ensure the condition is diagnosed early. The earlier liver cancer is diagnosed, the more effective treatment is likely to be.

Read more about diagnosing liver cancer.

How is liver cancer treated?

Treatment for liver cancer depends on the stage the condition is at. If diagnosed early, it may be possible to treat.

Treatment options include:

  • surgical resection – surgery is used to remove a section of liver
  • liver transplant – the liver is replaced with a donor liver
  • radiofrequency ablation – a small electrical current is used to destroy the cancerous cells

If liver cancer is only discovered at an advanced stage, treatment is only used to relieve pain and discomfort.

Currently, only 1 in 10 people is diagnosed for liver cancer at an early stage. In most people who are diagnosed with liver cancer, the cancer has advanced too far to be cured. As a result, only 1 in 5 people live for at least a year after being diagnosed with liver cancer. Just 1 in 20 people live for at least five years.

Read more about treating liver cancer.

Preventing liver cancer

Many cases of liver cancer are preventable. Most steps to reduce the chances of liver cancer involve having a healthy lifestyle.

The risk of liver cancer can be reduced by:

  • avoiding alcohol or excessive drinking
  • eating healthily and keeping fit to avoid obesity
  • reducing the chances of being infected by hepatitis B or hepatitis C

Read more about preventing liver cancer.

Page last reviewed: 20/09/2012

Next review due: 20/09/2014

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