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Liver Cancer

The liver is one of the largest organs in the body. It has four lobes and fills the upper right side of the abdomen inside the rib cage. The liver has many important functions including:

  • Filtering harmful substances from the blood so they can be passed from the body in stools and urine.
  • Making bile to help digest fats from food.
  • Storing glycogen (sugar), which the body uses for energy.

Liver cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the liver.

Liver cancer can be a primary cancer (starts in the liver) or a secondary cancer (starts in another part of the body and spreads to the liver). The liver can function normally with only a small portion of it in working order.

Primary liver cancers

In the western world, most people who develop primary liver cancer also have cirrhosis of the liver. This is scarring of the liver, which is due to a variety of causes including heavy alcohol drinking over a long period of time. However, only a small proportion of people who have cirrhosis of the liver develop primary liver cancer. Infection with hepatitis B, C or D can also increase the risk of developing cirrhosis and, later, primary liver cancer.

Secondary liver cancers

In Australia, most diagnosed cases of liver cancer are a result of spread from other primary cancer sites.
The liver is the most common site of metastases (deposits of cancerous cells distant from the primary source) from cancers originating in the abdominal organs and approximately one third of these cancers ultimately spread to the liver. The most common ones are breast, stomach and bowel cancers. These liver cancers are named after the primary cancer for example, breast cancer that has spread to the liver is called metastatic breast cancer. Sometimes the liver cancer is discovered first, which leads to the diagnosis of the primary cancer.


Usually patients with liver tumours have no symptoms in the early stages. Eventually however, people will develop symptoms such as:

  • Pain in the upper right side of the abdomen
  • Fever
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appétit
  • Swelling of the abdomen