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Symptoms of liver cancer

Men and women discussing liver cancer

This page is about the symptoms of liver cancer. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Symptoms of liver cancer

The symptoms of primary liver cancer can include

  • Significant loss of weight that cannot be explained
  • Loss of appetite over a period of a few weeks
  • Being sick
  • Feeling full or bloated after eating, even after a small meal
  • Pain or discomfort in the tummy (abdomen)
  • A swollen tummy (abdomen)
  • Yellowish skin (jaundice), dark coloured urine and pale coloured faeces
  • Itching
  • A sudden worsening of health in somebody with known chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis
  • A high temperature and sweating

Many of these symptoms are vague. All can be caused by other conditions such as infection. But if you have any of these symptoms you should see your doctor.
 

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Weight loss

Doctors usually define significant weight loss as more than 10% of your body weight - a stone for every 10 stone you weigh. Obviously losing weight doesn't mean you are ill if you are dieting or there is some other reason. But if there is no obvious explanation for your weight loss, you should see your doctor.

 

A swollen tummy (abdomen)

Swelling of the abdomen can happen in liver cancer for 2 reasons. The liver itself can get bigger from the growing cancer. This can cause swelling over the right side of your abdomen. Or you can have generalized swelling of the abdomen caused by a build up of fluid. This is called ascites.

Diagram showing fluid in the abdomen (ascites)

The fluid builds up because the liver is congested. This squeezes the blood vessels inside the liver and the blood that normally flows through it gets backed up in the veins. The pressure in these veins increases and forces fluid to leak from the veins into the abdomen. The veins may grow in size so much that they can be seen underneath the surface of the skin. If the liver is not able to make blood proteins as it should, fluid also tends to leak out of the veins and into the abdominal cavity. 

You can have ascites without having liver cancer, for example with liver cirrhosis.

 

Jaundice

Jaundice means yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. It may also make the skin itch. It means that your liver is not working properly or there may be a blockage in the bile duct.

Jaundice is due to a build up of bile salts in the blood. If there is a blockage, the bile cannot drain away into the bowel as it normally would. So bile salts build up in your blood and body tissues. The bile salts make your skin look yellow and feel itchy (doctors call itching pruritis). The bile's yellow pigment is excreted through the kidneys, so your urine appears darker than normal. And because the bile is not passing into your bowel, your stools will be much paler than normal.

 

Other symptoms

You may have some discomfort or pain in the tummy (abdomen) caused by the liver getting larger. You may also have pain in the right shoulder. This is caused by the enlarged liver stimulating the nerves under the diaphragm, which are connected to nerves in the right shoulder (referred pain).

Other symptoms you may have include

  • Loss of appetite over a period of a few weeks
  • Being sick
  • Feeling full or bloated after eating, even after a small meal
  • Itching
  • A sudden worsening of health in somebody with known chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis
  • A high temperature and sweating

Many of these symptoms are vague, and can be caused by conditions other than cancer. But if you do have any symptoms you should see your doctor.

 

More information

The earlier a cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat it and the more likely the treatment is to be successful. So it is important that you go to your GP as soon as possible if you notice worrying symptoms.

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Updated: 14 May 2013