Skip to main content

Liver Cancer

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Aug 2, 2023.

What is Liver Cancer?

Harvard Health Publishing

Liver cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the liver. It is also called hepatoma or hepatocellular carcinoma.

The liver:

Most liver tumors in the United States spread to the liver from other places in the body. This is referred to as secondary liver cancer or metastatic cancer. For example, cancer that has spread to the liver from the lungs is called "metastatic lung cancer."

The liver is the most common place for cancer to spread. In patients with secondary liver cancer, doctors treat patients for the original site of the cancer. So, metastatic lung cancer that has spread to the liver would be treated as lung cancer, not liver cancer.

On the other hand, primary liver cancer starts in the liver. Primary means that it started in the liver, as opposed to a cancer that originates in another part of the body and spreads to the liver. Primary liver cancer is treated as liver cancer.

Liver Cancer

Risk Factors

Factors that increase your risk of developing primary liver cancer include:


Symptoms usually do not appear until the disease is advanced. Symptoms can include:

Liver cancer can lead to high pressure in blood vessels that feed into the liver. This can cause veins in the esophagus and stomach to swell with significant risk of bleeding and vomiting blood.


Liver cancer is usually diagnosed in later stages of the disease because symptoms do not appear until then.

Once your doctor suspects you might have liver cancer, he or she will use one or more of the following methods to diagnose the disease:

Expected Duration

Without treatment, liver cancer will continue to grow.


Most primary liver cancer can be prevented. Here are some things you can do:

Other healthy lifestyle choices may also decrease your risk of developing liver cancer:

Treating chronic hepatitis B or C with antiviral drugs helps prevent cirrhosis and likely decreases the chance of developing primary liver cancer.


The type of treatment depends on a number of factors, including the stage of the cancer, your age and your general health.

Surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are potential treatment options. Often, a combination of all three is used.

A primary liver cancer that has not spread to lymph nodes or other organs can often be surgically removed. However, only a small percentage of liver cancers are found in this early stage.

For most cases of liver cancer, it is not possible to remove the entire tumor. Or, the cancer has spread throughout much of the liver or to distant sites. There are no standard treatments for liver cancer in these stages. For a few cases, a liver transplant may be considered.

Newer therapies have improved the outlook for some patients with liver cancer. For example, in some cases of primary liver cancer, targeted therapies can be used. These drugs block the chemical pathways that stimulate growth and spread of cancer cells.

Other drugs, which decrease the blood supply that tumors need to grow, have also been shown to be helpful. In some cases, chemotherapy can be delivered directly into blood vessels that feed the tumor. Or materials can be injected into blood vessels that act as a clot and shut off the blood supply to the liver. Without blood supply, the tumor shrinks.

In many cases, liver cancer cannot be cured. Instead, treatment focuses on relieving the symptoms of the cancer or keeping the cancer from growing, spreading or returning.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

When To Call a Professional

Most symptoms of liver cancer are not specific such as fatigue, decreased appetite and weight loss. Liver problems of any kind, including liver cancer, also may cause:


The outlook for people with liver cancer depends on how far the cancer has spread and whether it can be entirely removed with surgery.

Additional Info

American Cancer Society (ACS)1599 Clifton Road, NEAtlanta, GA 30329-4251Toll-Free: 1-800-227-2345TTY: 1-866-228-4327

American Liver Foundation75 Maiden LaneSuite 603 New York, NY 10038Phone: 212-668-1000Fax: 212-483-8179

Cancer Research InstituteNational HeadquartersOne Exchange Plaza55 Broadway, Suite 1802New York, NY 10006Toll-Free: 1-800-992-2623

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)1600 Clifton RoadAtlanta, GA 30333Toll-Free: 1-800-232-4636TTY: 1-888-232-6348

National Cancer Institute (NCI)NCI Public Inquiries Office6116 Executive Blvd.Room 3036ABethesda, MD 20892-8322Toll-Free: 1-800-422-6237TTY: 1-800-332-8615

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN)275 Commerce Drive, Suite 300Fort Washington, PA 19034Phone: 215-690-0300Fax: 215-690-0280

Learn more about Liver Cancer

Treatment options

Care guides

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.