Primary liver cancer is an uncommon but serious type of cancer that begins in the liver.

This is a separate condition from secondary liver cancer, where the cancer developed in another part of the body and spread to the liver.

Read about secondary liver cancer on Macmillan Cancer Support.

This topic covers:

Symptoms

Causes

Diagnosis

Treatment

Symptoms of liver cancer

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

  • unintentional weight loss 
  • loss of appetite
  • feeling very full after eating, even if the meal was small
  • feeling sick and vomiting
  • pain or swelling in your abdomen (tummy)
  • jaundice (yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes)
  • itchy skin
  • feeling very tired and weak

Visit your GP if you notice any of the symptoms listed above. They're more likely to be the result of a more common condition, such as an infection, but it's best to have them checked.

You should also contact your GP if you've previously been diagnosed with a condition known to affect the liver, such as cirrhosis or a hepatitis C infection, and your health suddenly deteriorates.

Causes of liver cancer

The exact cause of liver cancer is unknown, but most cases are associated with damage and scarring of the liver known as cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis can have a number of different causes, including:

It's also believed obesity and an unhealthy diet can increase the risk of liver cancer because this can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

You may be able to significantly reduce your chances of developing liver cancer by:

Although liver cancer is relatively uncommon in the UK, the chances of developing the condition are high for people with risk factors for the condition.

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

Diagnosing liver cancer

Liver cancer is usually diagnosed after a consultation with a GP and a referral to a hospital specialist for further tests, such as scans of your liver.

However, regular check-ups for liver cancer (known as surveillance) are often recommended for people known to have a high risk of developing the condition, such as those with cirrhosis.

Having regular check-ups helps ensure the condition is diagnosed early. The earlier liver cancer is diagnosed, the more effective treatment is likely to be.

Read about diagnosing liver cancer.

Treating liver cancer

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

Treatment options in the early stages of liver cancer include:

  • surgical resection – surgery to remove a section of liver
  • liver transplant – where the liver is replaced with a donor liver
  • microwave or radiofrequency ablation – where microwaves or radio waves are used to destroy the cancerous cells

However, only a small proportion of liver cancers are diagnosed at a stage where these treatments are suitable. Most people are diagnosed when the cancer has spread too far to be removed or completely destroyed.

In these cases, treatments such as chemotherapy are used to slow down the spread of the cancer and relieve symptoms such as pain and discomfort.

Read about treating liver cancer.

Coping with cancer

In this video, people who have been through cancer treatment talk about what kept them going and the practicalities of treatment.

Media last reviewed: 14/07/2015

Next review due: 14/07/2017

Page last reviewed: 12/09/2016

Next review due: 12/09/2019