Cancer Types

Liver Cancer

Information about liver cancer.

What is Liver cancer?

The liver is a large organ in the upper right part of the abdomen. The liver has many functions including clearing toxins from the body and producing bile to help digest food.

Primary liver cancer develops when abnormal cells in the liver grow in an uncontrolled way. If it is not found and treated early, liver cancer can spread to other parts of the body.

Secondary liver cancer is cancer that has started in another part of the body and has spread to the liver (also called metastatic cancer). This kind of cancer is considered a cancer of the original site. For example, breast cancer that has spread to the liver is still referred to as breast cancer, or metastatic breast cancer.

In New Zealand, secondary liver cancer is much more common than primary liver cancer.

Who can be affected by liver cancer?

Liver cancers are much more common in men than in women. The risk of developing liver cancer increases with age.

Risk factors

Anything that can increase your risk is called a risk factor. Having one or more of these risk factors does not mean that you will develop liver cancer.

Risk factors for primary liver cancer include:

  • Hepatitis B or C infection: this can lead to long-term (chronic) infection which can cause liver cancer
  • High alcohol consumption leading to liver cirrhosis
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Obesity
  • Rare genetic disorders including haemochromatosis and alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Smoking tobacco

Signs and Symptoms

Liver cancer may not cause symptoms early on. Symptoms are more likely to appear as the cancer grows. Symptoms can include:

  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Weight loss
  • Swelling or build-up of fluid in the abdomen
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Jaundice: yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes


There are a several tests that will be used to confirm if you have liver cancer.

Your doctor will examine your abdomen and check your skin and the whites of your eyes looking for jaundice (a yellowish colour). Your doctor will also do a blood test to check your liver function.

If your doctor suspects liver cancer they will refer you for other tests, including a radiology scan - usually an ultrasound scan which may be followed by a CT or MRI scan depending on the results.

To confirm a diagnosis, a liver biopsy may be done. This is when a small amount of liver tissue is removed and looked at by a pathologist in a laboratory to decide if it is cancer.


If you are found to have liver cancer you will be referred to a specialist. A team of health professionals will look after your care.

Treatment for liver cancer depends on the size of the cancer, how far it has spread within the liver and the body, the severity of your symptoms, your general health and your preferences.

Treatment may include surgery to remove the part of the liver containing the tumour. For some people removing part of the liver may not be an option, in which case liver transplant may be considered. Other treatments may include chemotherapy (medicines used to destroy the cancer cells) and radiation therapy (radiation to destroy cancer cells).

Helpful websites:

NSW Cancer Institute, Liver Cancer

Cancer Society, Liver Cancer

The Mayo Clinic, Liver Cancer