About Liver Cancer

The liver is the body’s largest glandular organ and it sits in the upper right portion of your abdomen, beneath your diaphragm and above your stomach. You cannot live without your liver. When cancer develops in the liver (primary liver cancer), it destroys liver cells and interferes with the ability of the liver to function normally. Over 42,000 patients per year are diagnosed with primary liver cancer in the United States. Cancer that spreads to the liver (secondary liver cancer) is more common than cancer that begins in the liver cells. Approximately 20-25% of patients with cancer at other primary sites will have secondary (metastatic) cancer of the liver.

Types of Liver Cancer

Liver cancer is generally classified as primary or secondary. Primary liver cancer is a disease in which malignant, or cancerous, cells form in the tissues of the liver. Secondary liver cancer is cancer that has spread to the liver from another part of the body, such as the breast, colon, lung, pancreas, or stomach.

Examples of primary liver cancer:

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common type of primary liver cancer, with over 40,000 new cases anticipated in the United States each year. HCC makes up approximately 85-90% of liver cancers, other primary liver cancers are much less common.
  • Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer) accounts for about 10-20% of cancers that occur in the liver. These cancers develop in the cells that line the small bile ducts within the liver. Most cholangiocarcinomas, however, develop in the bile ducts outside the liver. For more details about this type of cancer, see biliary tract cancer.
  • Angiosarcoma and hemangiosarcoma are rare cancers that begin in the cells that line the blood vessels of the liver. These tumors grow quickly and are usually too widespread to be removed surgically by the time they are found.
  • Hepatoblastoma is a rare cancer that develops in children, usually younger than four years of age, but usually does not spread to other areas of the body.

Secondary liver cancer tumors are named and treated based on their primary site (where they started).

Symptoms of Liver Cancer

Early liver cancer frequently occurs without symptoms, but may present with a number of symptoms.

Common symptoms of liver cancer include:

  • Abdominal pain or tenderness, near the right shoulder blade
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Fluid in abdomen (ascites)
  • Yellow skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • Light colored stools
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling very full after a small meal
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • An enlarged liver, felt as fullness under the ribs on the right side

Risk Factors for Liver Cancer

Primary and secondary liver cancer are associated with different risk factors.

Risk factors for primary liver cancer may include:

  • Health history: Primary liver cancer is linked to viral hepatitis (B and C), fatty liver disease (a condition common in obese people), iron overload (hemochromatosis), alcoholic cirrhosis (a disease in which liver cells become damaged and are replaced by scar tissue), and a history of primary biliary cirrhosis (an autoimmune condition that can also cause cirrhosis). In rare cases, the condition is associated with genetic diseases
  • Personal history: In some cases, toxic exposures can increase your risk of liver cancer, as can long-term use of anabolic steroids. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are at higher risk for developing primary liver cancer than other races
  • Sex: Men are three times more likely to be diagnosed with liver cancer than women

Risk Factors for secondary liver cancer may include:

Any patient with a cancer of the esophagus, stomach, pancreas, intestines, colon, rectum, breast, lung, or other less common sites is at risk for spread to the liver.

Treating Liver Cancer at UT Health Austin

While surgery is often the first line of treatment for all types of liver cancer, treatment may include combinations of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. In some cases, minimally invasive approaches or treatments can be effective, all of which are available through UT Health Austin.

Care Team Approach

At UT Health Austin, we take a multidisciplinary approach to your care. This means you will benefit from the expertise of multiple specialists across a variety of disciplines. Your care team will include medical oncologists, surgical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, oncofertility specialists, onco-psychiatrists, genetic counselors, physical therapists, dietitians, social workers, and more as well as other members of the CaLM Care Team who work together to help you get back to the things in your life that matter most to you. We also collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to identify and utilize new therapies to improve cancer treatment outcomes. We are committed to communicating and coordinating your care with your other healthcare providers to ensure that we are providing you with comprehensive, whole-person care.

Learn More About Your Care Team

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Gastrointestinal Cancer

Health Transformation Building, 8th Floor
1601 Trinity Street, Bldg. A, Austin, TX 78712
1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737)
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Surgical Oncology Clinic

Health Transformation Building, 8th Floor
1601 Trinity Street, Bldg. A, Austin, TX 78712
1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737)
Get Directions