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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. Cancer that spreads to the liver (secondary liver cancer) is more common than cancer that begins in the liver cells.

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 start in the liver. These cancers start in the cells that line the small bile within the liver. Most cholangiocarcinomas actually start 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
  • An enlarged spleen, felt as fullness under the ribs on the left side

Risk Factors for Primary Liver Cancer

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been identified as high-risk for developing primary liver cancer, and men are three times more likely to be diagnosed with liver cancer than women.

Common risk factors for liver cancer include:

  • Viral hepatitis (B and C)
  • Fatty liver disease, a common condition in obese people
  • Iron overload (hemochromatosis)
  • Toxic exposures (rare)
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis, a disease in which liver cells become damaged and are replaced by scar tissue
  • A history of primary biliary cirrhosis, an autoimmune condition that can also cause cirrhosis
  • Long-term use of anabolic steroids
  • Genetic diseases (rare)

Risk Factors for Primary Liver Cancer

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. You care team will include fellowship-trained cancer surgeons, gastrointestinal cancer specialists, and liver specialists that are nationally recognized leaders at the forefront of their fields as well as medical oncologists, radiation therapy physicians, experts in x-ray and tissues diagnoses, physical therapists, social workers, dietitians, and more, 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 University of Texas at Austin, the Dell Medical School, and the Livestrong Cancer Institutes to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to identify new therapies to improve cancer treatment outcomes. We focus on applying advanced surgical techniques, including robotic and laparoscopic surgery and other minimally invasive approaches, and 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

Gastrointestinal Cancer

Health Transformation Building (HTB), 9th 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, 9th Floor
1601 Trinity Street, Bldg. A, Austin, Texas 78712
1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737)
Get Directions