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About liver cancer

Find out about who gets liver cancer, where it starts and how common it is.

What it is

Liver cancer is a cancer that starts in the liver. It is a rare cancer in the UK. It is much more common in the UK to have cancer that has spread to the liver from somewhere else in the body. This is called a secondary liver cancer.

Cancers are named after their original cell type, from the organ where the cancer first begins to grow. This is the primary cancer. Cancer cells can break away from the primary site and travel to other parts of the body in the blood or lymphatic system. The cells eventually lodge in another body organ and begin to grow there. This is called a secondary cancer. The cells are still the same type as the primary cancer.

This is important because cancers are treated according to the original cell type. So for example, secondary breast cancers that have spread to the liver are treated with breast cancer treatments, because the cancer cells in the liver are breast cancer cells.

The information on this page is about cancers that start in the liver.

The liver

The liver is the second largest organ in the body after the skin. It's just below your right lung and is protected by the lower ribs on that side of your body.

Diagram showing the parts of the digestive system

What the liver does

Stores nutrients

The liver receives its blood supply from both the hepatic artery and the hepatic portal vein. Just before it reaches the liver, the blood in the portal vein comes through the gut (digestive system). As it flows through, it picks up the carbohydrates, proteins, fats and vitamins that the digestive system breaks down from the food that we eat. The blood then carries these nutrients to the liver.

Diagram-showing-the-two-lobes-of-the-liver-and-its-blood-supply.png

Converts fat to energy when the body needs it

It uses chemicals to convert some foods containing carbohydrates and fat so that they can be used for energy.

Produces bile

It produces bile, a substance that helps the digestion and absorption of food. Bile is stored in a small sack below the liver called the gallbladder. The bile passes into the bowel through the bile duct, a tube that goes from the liver to the first part of the small bowel.

Diagram-showing-the-position-of-the-liver-and-gallbladder.png

Produces proteins

The liver produces albumin. This is a protein found in blood that helps to keep a balance of fluid between the body's tissues and the bloodstream.

Helps to clot the blood

The liver produces substances that help the blood to clot. These substances help to control bleeding when you cut yourself.

Makes substances the body needs 

It's able to make many substances in the body that are essential for the production of bone and tissues. It also makes cholesterol, which is an essential part of the walls of cells.

Breaking down harmful substances

The liver breaks down harmful substances so that the body can get rid of them in urine or faeces. This includes alcohol, many drugs, and waste products from normal body processes. So if the liver is not working properly, harmful substances can build up and cause problems with the normal functions of the body.
 

Where it starts

The liver is made up of different types of cells. The type of liver cancer you have depends on where it starts and the type of cell it starts in. They include:
  • hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), this is the most common type of liver cancer
  • fibrolamellar cancer, a rare type of HCC
  • intra hepatic cholangiocarcinoma, which starts in the section of bile ducts inside the liver
  • angiosarcoma (or haemangiosarcoma), which starts in the blood vessels of the liver and is extremely rare
  • hepatoblastoma, which is very rare and usually affects young children

Who gets it

Around 5,400 primary liver cancers are diagnosed in the UK in 2013. It is more common in men than in women. Our risk of liver cancer gets higher as we get older. Almost 6 in 10 liver cancer cases (60%) in the UK each year are diagnosed in people aged 70 and over (2011 - 2013).

Last reviewed: 
04 Feb 2015
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  • Cancer Research UK
    CancerStats Series

  • Cancer principles and practice of oncology (10th edition)
    De Vita, VT, Lawrence TS and Rosenberg SA
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Information and help

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.​