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Liver cancer

Overview of liver cancer

Liver cancer is a type of gastrointestinal (GI) cancer located in the cells of the liver. In the U.S., liver cancer is a fairly common cancer, affecting more than 42,000 adults each year.

The most frequent form of liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma, in which many small cancerous nodules (abnormal tissue growths) begin to grow within the liver. Liver cancer can also start in the bile ducts.

At Dignity Health, we specialize in comprehensive treatment for liver cancer. If you experience signs or symptoms of this gastrointestinal cancer, Find a Doctor near you today.


The liver is an organ located in your abdomen below your lungs. It is responsible for filtering various toxins out of your body after you ingest them.

Liver cancer typically does not cause symptoms early on. When they do develop, they may include:

  • Appetite loss or feeling full after small amounts of food
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Fever
  • Itching
  • Feeling a mass under the ribs
  • Persistent or reoccurring nausea or vomiting
  • Pain or swelling in the abdomen
  • Unintended or unexplained weight loss
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)

Other liver conditions, such as liver failure and inflammation or infection of the liver, share some of these symptoms. Since any liver condition can have serious complications, it is essential to see your Dignity Health doctor as soon as possible if you notice symptoms.

The earlier you seek a diagnosis, the better the outcome is likely to be.


Cancer results from the growth of abnormal cells that form tumors or spread throughout the body. Researchers do not know exactly what causes cancer, including liver cancer.

However, there are certain risk factors that may increase your chances of developing cancer.

In general, anything that causes cell damage or immune system issues can lead to cancer.

Because the liver is an organ that works by detoxifying your body from chemicals or toxic substances you eat or drink, the things you consume have an effect.

Factors that lead to liver damage, like obesity, excess alcohol consumption, and infections such as hepatitis, can all cause scar tissue and increase risk of cancer.


Liver cancer refers both to cancers that begin in the liver cells themselves (“primary” liver cancer) and cancers that start elsewhere in the body and later spread (metastasize) to the liver (“secondary” liver cancer).

Two of the most common primary liver cancers are:

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma: Also known as hepatoma, this kind of liver cancer is responsible for the vast majority of cancers beginning in the liver (upwards of 75 percent for most demographics).
  • Cholangiocarcinoma: Cholangiocarcinoma is also called bile duct cancer because it begins in the bile ducts, the tube-like structures that link the liver with the gallbladder and aid with digestion. Less than one-quarter of liver cancer cases are cholangiocarcinomas.

Some of the rarer forms of liver cancer include angiosarcoma, which occurs in the blood vessels of the liver, and hepatoblastoma, which typically occurs in children.

Risk factors

Known risk factors that increase the chances of liver cancer include:

  • Being age 60 or older
  • Chronic hepatitis B or C infection
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Liver cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)
  • Being male (men are about three times more likely to have liver cancer than women)
  • Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Type 2 diabetes

Some people get liver cancer without having any of these risk factors, and having one or more of these risk factors doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get liver cancer.

However, if your background or health history indicates that you might be at higher risk due to one or more of these factors, you may want to speak with your doctor about whether you should begin screenings. For all cancers, early detection is the key to effective treatment.


Prevention strategies for liver cancer involve controlling your risk factors, including:

  • Avoiding hepatitis infection or treating any previous infection
  • Not smoking or stopping smoking
  • Limiting alcohol use
  • Avoiding recreational drugs
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Attending regular physical appointments with your doctor

Your Dignity Health doctor will work with you on prevention strategies for liver cancer, or, if you are diagnosed, a personalized treatment plan.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.